SEATTLE (AP) — The clock ran down at the end of the homecoming game and spectators stormed the football field, knocking over members of the high school band — all to gather around an assistant coach as he took a knee in prayer, surrounded by uniformed players.
Six years later, after losing his coaching job and repeatedly losing in court, that former Washington state coach, Joe Kennedy, will take his arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield immediately after games. Four conservative justices have already expressed concerns with how his case has been handled.
Kennedy’s effort to get his job back helped earn him an appearance at a 2016 Donald Trump rally and quickly became a cultural touchstone, pitting public school employees’ religious liberties against what his critics describe as longstanding principles separating church and state and protecting students from religious coercion.
Lawyers for the school district say officials had no problem letting Kennedy pray separately from students or letting him return to the field to pray after the students left. But allowing him to pray at midfield immediately after games with students there risked being seen as government endorsement of religion.
While Kennedy insists he never cared whether students participated in the prayers and he never asked them to join him, at least one player — anonymously — later reported participating contrary to his own beliefs, for fear of losing playing time.
“This case is challenging well-established case law that has protected students’ religious freedom for decades, and that has been supported by conservative and liberal justices alike,” said Rachel Laser, chief executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school district. “If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”
For Kennedy’s supporters, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ holding in the case would force public school employees to drop their religious identities at the schoolhouse door — something they say the Constitution does not require.
“If a teacher prays over her lunch in the cafeteria and students can see her — just that little blessing over her salad — that’s enough to terminate that teacher, according to the school district,” said Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy.
Kennedy, a former Marine whose day job was at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, began coaching football at Bremerton High in 2008. He was new to religion and coaching, and said he was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants” — about a Christian high school football coach — to give thanks to God “on the battlefield” after each game.
What began as a solitary practice soon attracted students. He agreed, citing the district’s policy of neither encouraging nor discouraging student prayer. Over the years he began leading locker room prayers before games, as well as group prayers and religious motivational talks at midfield after them.
The school district said it did not learn Kennedy was leading players in prayer until it heard it from another team’s coach in September 2015. Administrators told him he was not to participate in religious activities with students, and any of his own religious observation must be either non-demonstrative or should occur without students.