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Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case of Coach Who Prayed on Football Field

Coach Joe Kennedy. (Image credit: First Liberty Institute)

The US Supreme Court is refusing, for now, to hear a case that threatens whether public school employees keep their First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and religion when they're in front of students.

Joseph Kennedy, a Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach, was suspended and ended up losing his job for kneeling on the field and praying for 15 seconds silently by himself after games.

The school district warned Kennedy that his public prayers were inappropriate and implied that the school was endorsing his beliefs in violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution, according to court documents.

Kennedy requested a religious accommodation to continue his post-game prayers citing civil rights laws banning discrimination on the basis of religion in employment, but it was denied, according to the news website The Hill.

The coach then sued the school and the district for violating his right to free speech and religion.  Both a federal district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the school district's decision. 

The 9th Circuit said, "When Kennedy kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech, therefore, was constitutionally unprotected."

Justice Samuel Alito issued an opinion respecting the court's decision to deny review of the case. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh also joined Alito saying they are interested in the case and the legal issues it raises. 

Alito called the 9th's Circuit ruling "troubling."

"What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit's opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach's duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith even when the coach is plainly not on duty," Alito wrote. "I hope that this is not the message that the Ninth Circuit meant to convey, but its opinion can certainly be read that way."

Alito and the other justices also raised unresolved factual questions that need to be answered before the high court can review the case.

Meanwhile, the case continues, returning to the district court for further development.

"The Supreme Court seems to understand that banning all coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution," Kelly Shackelford, president, and CEO of First Liberty said in a press release. "We are eager to return to the District Court, answer the questions the justices raised today, and give the Court another opportunity to protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired."

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