US Supreme Court hears dispute over football coach’s prayers

Jan. 14 (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday approved an appeal from a former Christian high school soccer coach who was suspended from his Washington state high school job for refusing to stop praying in midfield after games – a case that could extend the religious rights of employees of public institutions.

The judges appealed Joseph Kennedy, who worked as an assistant football coach in the city of Bremerton, against a lower court ruling that dismissed his claims that the school district’s actions violated its freedom of speech and religious rights under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Kennedy last year, ruling that local officials would have violated the government’s First Amendment prohibition on establishing religion if they allowed Kennedy’s prayers and Christian speeches to continue.

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Kennedy was an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Bremerton High School from 2008 to 2015.

The issue in this case is whether Kennedy’s religious devotion alongside players on the football field, as a civil servant, was a government speech that can be regulated under Supreme Court precedents, or a private act that would protect the Constitution.

Kennedy states that his prayers and speeches were private in nature and not part of his official duties as a coach. Bremerton School District disagreed, noting that Kennedy regularly prayed after the game for crowds of players and others for years until officials learned about the religious nature of these sessions in 2015.

The school district said such prayers from the coach could be coercive, and some parents said their children felt compelled to participate.

The dispute began when the school district, wary that Kennedy’s actions could be seen as an impermissible endorsement of religion by the government, notified him to stop the prayers while he was on duty and offered other private locations in the school as an alternative. .

Kennedy declined and appeared in the media to publicize his dispute with the school district, which drew national attention. After repeatedly defying the demands of school officials, he was given paid time off from his season contract and did not reapply as coach for the following season.

“No child attending public school should pray to play sports in school,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a secularism advocacy group that represents the school district.

The school district, Laser said, followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it prevented Kennedy from having forced prayers with players.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job just for publicly expressing their faith,” said Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a conservative religious rights group that Kennedy helps represent. “By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to participate in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”

The Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority of 6-3, has taken a generous view of religious rights in several rulings in recent years.

Kennedy, who has said he was “not rehired,” sued in federal court in 2016. He asked for a court order to be reinstated as a coach, for religious discrimination and violations of his freedom of expression.

Highlighting the coach’s efforts to draw national attention to his challenge, the 9th Circuit said Kennedy engaged in “public speech of an overtly religious nature” while working as a public servant. The school district allegedly violated the Constitution “by allowing Kennedy to pray at the end of football games, in the middle of the field, with students who felt pressured to join him,” the 9th added. Circuit to it.

In arguments in another case last month, conservative Supreme Court justices seemed poised to further expand public funding for religiously-based entities in a case involving a Maine tuition assistance program that excludes private schools that promote religious beliefs.

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Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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