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Supreme Court to hear appeal of high school coach who lost job over on-field prayers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday takes up the case of a Washington state high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field immediately after games.

Joseph Kennedy says the school district violated his religious freedom by telling him he couldn’t pray so publicly after the games, but the district says it was trying to avoid the appearance that the school was endorsing a religious point of view.

The case presents an important test of the current court’s notion of the separation between church and state. In recent rulings, it has been inclined to view actions that the government claims are neutral toward religion as, instead, hostile to religious expression.

One factor in the case may be whether the coach’s decision to pray in such a prominent place, on the 50-yard line, amounted to a private moment of giving thanks or a public demonstration of his religious faith that his players may have felt compelled to join. 

Kennedy became an assistant coach of the varsity football team at Bremerton High School in 2008 and later began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended and the players and coaches met at midfield to shake hands. The school district eventually told him he should find a private location for praying, but he declined and continued his practice of dropping to one knee and praying silently on the 50-yard line.

“I was just doing the free exercise of my religion and wasn’t going to go hide it because I work for the government,” he said in an NBC News interview. “No one in America should have to hide who they are or that they have faith.”

The school district said his prayer was anything but private. He announced his plans to continue praying and invited journalists and a state legislator to watch. The district gave him a poor performance evaluation, and he did not apply to renew his annual contract after the 2015 football season.

Kennedy then sued, claiming violations of his right to free expression and religious freedom. But the lower federal courts said because he chose to say his prayers in such a prominent place, he was acting as a public employee and his conduct was therefore not protected by the First Amendment.

He was dressed in school colors, still on the job and responsible for the conduct of his players, a lower court ruling against him said, and a reasonable observer would have seen his actions as a coach “participating in, in fact leading, an orchestrated session of faith.”

Those rulings cited past Supreme Court decisions that said when public employees act in their official capacities, they are speaking more for the government than for themselves.

His lawyer urged the Supreme Court to find that the prayers were an act of personal religious expression, adding, “He did not do so as a mouthpiece for the school district.”

“Schools cannot define the job duties of teachers and coaches to be so all-encompassing as to deny them all rights to individual expression on school grounds,” his lawyer said in his court filing.

But the school district’s lawyers said the students on the football team look up to their coach and feel a compulsion to do as he does. They said he was seeking to pray in his capacity as their coach. “He insisted that the prayers take place with students on the 50-yard line, at the center of attention and traditional place for postgame speeches,” the lawyers said.

“Spiritual guidance should come from students’ families and houses of worship, not the government,” the district told the Supreme Court. 

The case has attracted an unusual amount of attention, with 60 friend of the court briefs, including from former professional football players — some supporting the coach, others supporting the school district.

The justices will issue their decision by the end of June.

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