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A Washington high school assistant football coach who lost his job after praying at the 50-yard line while surrounded by students will take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday, claiming the school district violated his First Amendment rights.
Joseph Kennedy, a Marine, said the Bremerton School District infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to let him continue praying at the midfield after games following an incident where students joined him in the prayer in September 2015.
Lawyers for the district said Kennedy was allowed to pray by himself, but following three more instances of the coach praying with students on the field and in locker rooms, he was placed on administrative leave and his contract was dropped in 2016, the New York Times reported.
The district added that it had received a slew of complaints and threats following news of Kennedy’s prayers for allegedly influencing students to join him.
According to the district’s briefing to the Supreme Court, who originally refused to hear the case in 2019, ‘District administrators received threats and hate mail. Strangers confronted and screamed obscenities at the head coach, who feared for his safety.’
Former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy (pictured in March), a Marine, said the district infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to let him continue praying at the 50-yard line after games. The Supreme Court will hear his case on Monday
The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured). After repeated instances, the district opted to drop his contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to apply again
Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him. At least one player spoke out anonymously to say he felt pressured to play
Kennedy contends that praying at the 50-yard is his own personal ritual, which he has done since 2008, and that he has never asked any students to join him.
After a few games, some of the players asked him what he was doing and he told them he was ‘thanking God for you guys’ before a couple of players, who said they were Christian, asked if they could join.
‘It was never any kind of thing where it was a mandatory thing,’ he told the Times.
Jeremy Dys, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, which is representing Kennedy, said the school overstepped its boundaries when it barred Kennedy from praying when joined by students and condemned a Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision which ruled in favor of the district in 2019.
‘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,’ Dys told CBS about the supposed consequences of the 2019 ruling.
Rachel Laser, CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school district, claimed that the ruling was a victory for the student’s first amendment rights and urged the Supreme Court to maintain the decision.
‘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,’ Laser told CBS.
‘If the court rules the wrong way, teachers and coaches could pressure students to pray in every public school classroom across the country.’
Although Kennedy claims no one has ever felt pressured to join him, one student player had come forward anonymously to say he joined in one of the prayers despite his own beliefs due to fear of losing play time.
Kennedy, who now lives in Florida, said that if he wins the Supreme Court case, he would be on ‘the very first flight back’ to Washington.
‘The biggest honor of my life was coaching these young men,’ he said. ‘No lie, we had blood, sweat, tears and death in the Marine Corps, but I got way more out of coaching than anything else in my life.’
Despite the school district’s order, Kennedy was pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students. His attorney’s claim that stopping him from prayer violates his freedom of religion while the district contends that letting him lead prayers is a violation of the student’s own freedom of religion
Kennedy said he would happily return to the district to coach again if he wins the case
Then the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 2019, four of the conservative justices had expressed concerns over the Ninth Circuit Court’s ruling.
‘The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,’ Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote at the time, joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavannaugh and Clarence Thomas.
The Supreme Court has previously rejected prayer as a requirement in public schools and barred organized prayer led by students at high school football games.
Despite the court’s history, Laser feared the district would have an uphill battle now that the Supreme Court is composed of six conservative justices and only three liberals.
Source: Daily Mail