Supreme Court to hear appeal of high school coach forced out over on-field prayer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Friday to take up the appeal 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's departure as assistant coach at Bremerton High School in 2015 made headlines nationwide. During a 2016 campaign event, then-candidate Donald Trump called Kennedy's treatment "very, very sad and outrageous."

The Supreme Court declined to take up his appeal three years ago during a preliminary stage in his case, but four justices suggested at the time that lower court rulings against him were troubling.

Kennedy became a coach in 2008 and later began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended and the players and coaches had met midfield to shake hands. His lawyers explained that he would drop to one knee and "offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition."

His religious beliefs, his lawyers said, "require him to give thanks through prayer at the end of each game."

No one complained about the prayers, but when school district officials became aware, they reminded him of a policy that prohibited school staff from indirectly encouraging students to engage in religious activity or discouraging them from doing so, because it would be perceived as endorsing or opposing religious activity.

Kennedy briefly stopped the prayers but then resumed them, and his dust up with the school district attracted widespread attention. After a game in October 2015, he knelt on the 50-yard line and was soon surrounded by other coaches and players, as well as spectators who came onto the field from the stands.

A week later, after again praying on the field, he was placed on leave. The district did not re-hire him for the following season.

Kennedy sued, claiming the school district violated his rights of free expression and religious freedom, but lower federal courts ruled against him. They held that his prayers were not entitled to the kind of protection an individual would have, because he was acting in his capacity as a public employee and disregarding a requirement for the government to remain neutral in religious matters.

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."

In the latest appeal, Kennedy's lawyers said the Supreme Court has long held that teachers and students do not give up all their First Amendment protections while at school. If the rulings against him are allowed to stand, they could convert "practically everything public school teachers to or say during school hours or after-school hours into government speech that the school may prohibit," his lawyers said in urging the court to take the appeal.

The court will likely hear the case in the spring and issue a decision by late June.