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

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

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear the appeal of a Washington state high school football coach who lost his job after refusing to stop praying on the field immediately after the matches.

Joseph Kennedy’s departure as assistant coach at Bremerton High School in 2015 made national headlines. At a campaign event in 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump called Kennedy’s treatment “very, very sad and outrageous.”

The Supreme Court declined to appeal three years ago at 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 then began to offer a brief prayer on the pitch after games had ended and players and coaches met in midfield to shake hands. His attorneys said he would take a knee and “offer a quiet or silent prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition.”

His religious beliefs, his lawyers said, “compel him to give thanks in prayer at the end of every game.”

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

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

A week later, after praying again in the field, he was put on leave. The district did not rehire him for the following season.

Kennedy sued, claiming the school district violated his free speech and religious freedom rights, but lower federal courts ruled against him. They felt that his prayers were not entitled to the kind of protection that an individual would enjoy because he was acting in his capacity as a public employee and disregarded the government’s requirement of neutrality in religious matters.

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

In the latest appeal, Kennedy’s attorneys said the Supreme Court has long held that teachers and students do not waive all of their First Amendment protections while in school. If the rulings against him are upheld, they could convert “virtually anything public school teachers say or say during school hours or after school hours into government speech that the school can ban,” his colleagues said. lawyers urging the court to take the appeal.

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

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

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