The Supreme Court has agreed to hear another religious rights claim from a conservative Christian, this time to decide whether a former high school football coach had a free-speech right to kneel and lead postgame prayers at the 50-yard line.
The case of Joe Kennedy, a former coach from Bremerton, Wash., has bounced back and forth in the federal courts for six years, including two decisions from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and one earlier appeal to the Supreme Court.
And all the while, the two sides disagreed about what’s at issue: Are his prayers a matter of private speech or are they about promoting religion on school grounds?
His case has attracted extra attention in conservative circles, and the justices said Friday they agreed to decide whether Kennedy’s rights were violated when school officials warned him against leading prayers on the football field.
“His lawsuit has always concerned only whether a public-school employee has a constitutional right to engage in brief, quiet prayer by himself,” former Solicitor Gen. Paul Clement said on Kennedy’s behalf. “The religious expression of hundreds of thousands of teachers in the 9th Circuit is now on the verge of extinction, and the chilling effects elsewhere around the country are palpable.”
The school district officials said they had no objection to Kennedy or other school employees praying privately at school, including in the locker room before or after games. They did object, however, when Kennedy drew a growing audience for his on-field prayers at the end of each game.
Football players and other students rushed to midfield to join him.
They also objected to what one court described as the coach’s “media blitz,” in which he took the dispute to local TV stations.
Kennedy was an assistant coach on a yearly contract, and he was suspended when he refused to follow the district’s warning against holding the on-field prayers. He was not rehired for the next year and later filed suit alleging a violation of his 1st Amendment rights to the freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.
The dispute split the 9th Circuit Court. In its latest decision, Judge Milan Smith said, “Kennedy spoke as a public employee when he kneeled and prayed on the 50-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents.” In the past, judges have said schools may regulate or restrict what public employees say on the job, even while they are free to speak as they wish on their own time.
But 11 judges from the 9th Circuit dissented from this ruling, setting the stage for the appeal to the high court. The justices will hear arguments in the case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, in the spring and issue a ruling by the end of June.