Supreme Court to Decide Praying High School Football Coach’s First Amendment Case

On Friday, January 14, 2022, the United States Supreme Court granted a high school football coach’s petition for a writ of certiorari. The court will hear the coach’s case concerning postgame midfield prayers with players and coaches.

Joseph Kennedy is an assistant coach for Bremerton High School’s varsity football team and the head coach for the junior varsity football team. Kennedy’s beliefs as a devout Christian “compelled him to give thanks through prayer at the conclusion of each game for what the players accomplished and for the opportunity to be part of their lives through football.” After football games, Kennedy met with players and coaches at midfield to “pause, kneel, and offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition.” These prayers typically lasted about 15 to 30 seconds. Students and coaches joined voluntarily without Kennedy coercing, requiring, or asking any students or coaches to pray. Prior to Kennedy’s time at the school, the team sometimes prayed pregame and postgame in the locker room.

In 2015, an employee from another high school mentioned Kennedy’s prayers to Bremerton High School’s principal. A separate school administrator then “expressed disapproval” to Kennedy, whereafter Kennedy took to Facebook to post “I think I just might have been fired for praying.” The school district was then inundated with emails, letters, and phone calls from around the country. The school district investigated whether district staff acted in accordance to the school board’s policy on “Religious-Related Activities and Practices.”

In its investigation, the school district found Kennedy’s behavior violated its policy and put in place new guidelines for Kennedy’s religious expression. Kennedy claims that he attempted to comply with the new guidelines, but was joined midfield after games anyway by coaches and players. Kennedy continued kneeling alone midfield after games and bowing his head for a brief, quiet prayer.

Kennedy was eventually placed on paid administrative leave and prohibited from participating in the football program. In November 2015, Kennedy received a poor performance evaluation. The evaluation recommended against rehiring Kennedy due to his “fail[ure] to follow district policy” and his “fail[ure] to supervise student-athletes after games.”

Kennedy’s lawsuit was previously heard twice in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. After losing both times, Kennedy filed a petition for a writ of certiorari before the U.S. Supreme Court. There are two issues in the case: (1) “Whether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection;” and (2) “[w]hether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, the Establishment Clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.”

Additional Reading

Supreme Court will hear case of praying football coach, ABA Journal (January 18, 2022)

Joseph A. Kennedy, Petitioner v. Bremerton School District (U.S. Supreme Court Docket)

Petition for Writ of Certiorari

Order in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (Case No. 20-35222 (9th Cir. 2021))

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