Supreme Court Heard Arguments in ‘Praying Coach’ Case — Will the Justices Protect Religious Freedom?

Update (6/27/22): The high court has ruled 6-3 that Coach Joseph Kennedy has a constitutional right to pray on the football field. The school violated his First Amendment rights.


The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which involves a former high school football coach who was suspended for praying with players on the 50-yard line after games.

The Bremerton School District in Washington told Coach Joseph Kennedy to stop praying with players on the field after games. When he refused to comply, the district suspended him and then refused to rehire him at the end of his contract. The district’s claim was that Kennedy was acting as a government employee, and his actions violated the district’s policy against school staff indirectly encouraging or discouraging students from engaging in religious activity. His prayers amounted to “government speech,” which violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Current and former NFL players Kirk Cousins, Joe Delamiel-Leure, Nick Foles, Phil Olsen, Christian Ponder, Drew Stanton, Harry Swayne, and Jack Youngblood in March submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of Kennedy.

The school district asked the Supreme Court to dismiss the case, because Kennedy no longer lives in the state and can’t benefit from a favorable ruling. Sources reported that the majority of the justices seemed sympathetic to Kennedy. For example, from the Washington Post:

And Richard B. Katskee, representing the Bremerton school district, said officials had an obligation to protect students from being coerced into religious activity they did not want. But justices said that might be rationalization, because the officials’ complaint to Kennedy was that his actions would be seen as government speech, violating constitutional commands against government endorsement of religion.

Questions from the court’s conservatives indicated they believe the school district has misread the court’s precedents regarding government endorsement of religion, and perhaps were hostile to such demonstrations.

Justice Clarence Thomas questioned whether Kennedy would have been disciplined if he had taken a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. questioned Katskee, legal director at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, about other political activism.

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