Fired for Praying, Coach Heading to the Supreme Court

Joe Kennedy became a cultural touchstone
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 25, 2022 3:00 AM CDT
Updated Apr 25, 2022 4:50 AM CDT
Coach Who Was Fired for Praying Going Before the Supreme Court
Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia High School football players as they kneel and pray with him on the field after their game against Bremerton on Oct. 16, 2015, in Bremerton, Wash.   (Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP, File)

The clock ran down at the end of the homecoming game and spectators stormed the football field, knocking over members of the high school band—all to gather around an assistant coach as he took a knee in prayer, surrounded by uniformed players. Six years later, after losing his coaching job and repeatedly losing in court, that former Washington state coach, Joe Kennedy, will take his arguments before the US Supreme Court on Monday, saying the Bremerton School District violated his First Amendment rights by refusing to let him continue praying at midfield immediately after games. Four conservative justices have already expressed concerns with how his case has been handled, the AP reports.

Kennedy's effort to get his job back helped earn him an appearance at a 2016 Donald Trump rally and quickly become a cultural touchstone. Lawyers for the school district say officials had no problem letting Kennedy pray separately from students or letting him return to the field to pray after the students left. But allowing him to pray at midfield immediately after games with students there risked being seen as government endorsement of religion. While Kennedy insists he never cared whether students participated in the prayers and he never asked them to join him, at least one player—anonymously—later reported participating contrary to his own beliefs, for fear of losing playing time.

As the case made its way through the courts, Kennedy lost at every turn. But when the Supreme Court declined to take the case at an earlier stage, Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh said that under the 9th Circuit's reasoning, "public school teachers and coaches may be fired if they engage in any expression that the school does not like while they are on duty.” They wrote that the appeals court's "understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling.” A decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418, is expected before the court begins its summer recess, the AP reports.

(More US Supreme Court stories.)

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