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Supreme Court sides with former Bremerton football coach who sought to pray after games

The Supreme Court said Monday that former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy’s prayer after games was protected by the First Amendment.

BREMERTON, Wash. — The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with a former Bremerton High School football coach who lost his job because he refused to stop praying on the field after games.

The court ruled 6-3 along ideological lines for former Bremerton coach Joe Kennedy. The justices said Kennedy's prayer was protected by the First Amendment.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the majority.

The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices. The outcome could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in the public school setting.

In an interview with KING 5 Monday morning, Kennedy said he was “still in shock” and “grateful that this long hard fight is finally over.”

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“What the justices said this morning is that even public school coaches and public school teachers, and all employees across the country, are entitled to the protections of the First Amendment, even when they walked through those schoolhouse gates,” Kennedy’s attorney Jeremy Dys said Monday morning. “That's extremely important.”

Dys said Monday’s decision would “resound in benefit to those teachers and coaches across the nation for decades to come, and that's a great thing for American freedom.”

The decision is also the latest in a line of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs. In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.

In a dissent on Monday, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that the coach decision “sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.” She was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.

Rev. Gregory Reffner, a Bremerton-based pastor, traveled to Washington, D.C., for the Supreme Court arguments in April.

Leadership from several churches in the Bremerton-area held a press conference raising concerns about the coach's prayers and the case following the April hearing.

Reffner said the decision was disheartening.

"It's taking away the choice for those Bremerton High School students, and indeed, for all Americans, to practice their religious expression the way they see fit," said Reffner.

He said if Kennedy were to resume coaching in Bremerton, Reffner said he would like to meet with the coach.

"I think there are a whole number of better, more faithful ways to show one's faith than to do what Coach Kennedy did," said Reffner.

In a statement, the Bremerton School District and their attorneys at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the decision undermines that separation required by the Constitution. The school district said that it had “followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families” and that it would work with its attorneys to make sure the district "remains a welcoming, inclusive environment for all students, their families and our staff.”

When asked if he would want his coaching job back at Bremerton High School, Kennedy said he would “be on the first flight as soon as they say that I can come back,” adding that he was “hoping for a call [Monday] from the school district.”

In 2019, the court declined to take up the case at an early stage, but four of the court’s conservatives agreed that a lower court decision in favor of the school district was “troubling” for its “understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers.”

When the lawsuit was first filed, Kennedy alleged he was terminated from his job after he refused to stop praying in public.

Kennedy had the custom to kneel and pray on the field following a game.

The decision was between the former coach’s right to religious freedom and the student’s right to not feel pressure to participate.

“It’s a very dangerous day in America to think of all the school children across this country where schools are supposed to welcome children feeling alienated and potentially ostracized if they don’t pray to play,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who also represents the Bremerton School District.

The school district argued that a coach engaging in public prayer is against the student’s religious freedom as it could pressure students to pray, which could open up the space to sue the district. 

On the other hand, representatives of Kennedy argued he has the right to engage in prayer on the field.

“What is at stake, in this case, is very simple, is whether or not (a) coach can take a knee in silent prayer by himself for 15 to 30 seconds and what that’s gonna mean for every public school teacher and coach across the nation,” Dys said in March before the Supreme Court heard the case.

Kennedy, who started working at Bremerton High School in 2008, prayed and led students and players after games for years but it wasn’t until 2015 when the school’s district found out and asked him to stop praying and to take part in openly religious activity. Kennedy stopped leading students into prayer but wanted to continue to pray, with students having the option to join. The district told Kennedy he could pray, but in private.

Kennedy would also lead the team to pray before a game in the locker rooms.

Kennedy was placed on paid leave, according to the school. He continued to engage in prayer after he was asked not to. His contract with the district expired and was not renewed. He did not reapply the following year.

Both practices of praying after or before games are carried by other coaches in diverse districts, a King's High School football coach said at the time.

Three justices on the court — Breyer, Kagan and Justice Samuel Alito — attended public high schools, while the rest attended Catholic schools. The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.

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