Joseph Kennedy, an 18-year-old Navy veteran, said the Bremerton School District violated its First Amendment rights to freedom of religion
An assistant football coach at a Washington high school will be taking his case to the Supreme Court Monday, April 25 after losing his job for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line while walking from was surrounded by students.
Joseph Kennedy, an 18-year-old Navy veteran, said the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights to religious liberty by refusing to let him pray after midfield games after uniformed students met him in September 2015 Midfield had prayed . District attorneys claimed Kennedy was allowed to pray alone but had to be placed on administrative leave after three additional counts of him praying with students on the field and in locker rooms. They said the district received several complaints and threats following news of its prayer meetings for allegedly influencing its students to join it in prayer. His coaching contract was finally terminated in 2016.
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“District administrators received threats and hate mail. Strangers confronted and yelled obscenities at the head coach, who feared for his safety,” said the district’s brief to the Supreme Court, which originally dropped the case in 2019.
On the other hand, Kennedy has claimed that praying at the 50-yard line has been a personal ritual of his since 2008 and that he has never asked students to join him. However, some of his players asked him what he was doing after a few games, and he told them he was “thank God for you guys,” leading some players, who were Christians, to ask Kennedy if they could join. “It was never something where it was mandatory,” he told the New York Times.
Kennedy’s attorney Jeremy Dys said the school overstepped its bounds by barring his client from praying when students joined him and slamming a 2019 U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that ruled in favor of the district. “If a teacher is praying during her lunch in the cafeteria and the students can see her — just that little blessing over her salad — that’s enough to fire that teacher,” Dys told CBS about the possible ramifications of the 2019 ruling.
Meanwhile, Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the district, upheld the ruling as a victory for students’ First Amendment rights and urged the Supreme Court not to overturn the decision. “This case challenges an established case law that has protected student religious freedom for decades and has been supported by conservative and liberal judges alike,” Laser told CBS. “If the court rules wrong, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.”
While Kennedy claimed no one was pressured to join him, one student allegedly came forward to say he only attended one of the prayers out of fear of losing playing time. The embattled coach, who currently lives in Florida, said if he won the Supreme Court case, he would take “the very first flight back” to Washington. “The greatest honor of my life has been coaching these young men,” he continued. “No lie, we had blood, sweat, tears and death in the Marine Corps, but I’ve benefited from coaching far more than anything else in my life.”
And while the Supreme Court refused to accept the case in 2019, four of the conservative justices had expressed doubts about the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision. “The Ninth Circuit Court’s understanding of the free speech of public school teachers is troubling and may warrant a future review,” wrote then Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas. Laser noted that the district faces an uphill battle as the Supreme Court panel consists of six conservative judges and only three liberal judges.