School prayer goes back before US Supreme Court

Education

WASHINGTON, D.C. (NewsNation) — It started with a football coach taking a knee to pray. It’s now a potentially landmark religious freedom case in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in the case of a former high school football coach and his ability to pray on the field.

In 2015, Joseph Kennedy, a Seattle-area public high school coach, was reprimanded for bringing his players together at the 50-yard line after games to pray. The Bremerton School District told Kennedy his prayers violated policy and pressured both Christian and non-Christian players to participate. However, Kennedy believes he was simply engaging in private, personal prayer, which is protected under the First Amendment, and that he in no way was compelling others to join or penalizing them for failing to do so. He was placed on administrative leave and ended up suing the school.

After the first day of Supreme Court arguments in the case, Kennedy told NewsNation why he’s taking on this fight.

“Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One, you know, I was a Marine, and I wanted to protect the Constitution of the United States. And now all of a sudden, it doesn’t apply to me – that rubs me the wrong way. And secondly, is that’s my faith. My commitment to God was to give thanks after every game and nobody should have to worry about being fired for just, you know, being thankful to their Lord,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy figured the fight would be over within a week’s time, but it has been ongoing for more than six years.

“When the school asked me to just stop praying with the students and my team, I said, absolutely. And I abided by every way I could. It was when they said I couldn’t pray, even by myself alone, that’s where the rub was. And that’s why we’re here today,” he explained.

During Monday’s oral arguments in the Supreme Court, justices weighed different scenarios involving religious display in schools. Some justices seemed to be sympathetic to Kennedy’s side. Others said it may be coercive for teens in school, but Kennedy said that point was eliminated the moment he stopped praying with his team.

Meanwhile, Kennedy hopes his case will prevail before the high court.

“It’s been a long haul. It’s been a marathon. Something I thought we could work out in a week turned into a seven-year battle and here we are today. I think the courts will rule (on) exactly what the facts are and apply the law without any of the biases out there, so I’m very optimistic about everything,” Kennedy said on the steps of the Supreme Court.

Stephanie Taub, senior counsel with First Liberty Institute, says there’s quite a few cases that support the individual expression of religious beliefs in schools and insists Kennedy wanted to only express his individual beliefs.

“The goal is to protect the religious freedom of all Americans, particularly here when it comes to teachers and coaches. All the coach is looking to do is kneel right after games in a brief 15-30 second prayer just between him and God. This is a commitment he made to God in 2008 and he’s looking to continue this religious practice. Too often, schools think they need to make schools into a religion-free zone and that’s simply not the case. They have a duty to respect the individual expression of teachers and coaches,” Taub said.

On the other side, Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says Kennedy’s case goes even further than past arguments presented to the Supreme Court about religious freedom in schools.

“It’s about an agent of the state himself, a public school coach, who’s violating the religious freedom of students by pressuring them to join him at the 50-yard line after each game,” Laser said. “He wanted to be able to pray encircled by students. The record shows that parents came forward and said that their kids felt pressured to pray to play. And that’s not what separation of church and state protects in this country.”

Two federal courts so far have ruled in favor of the school district. However, with a conservative-leaning majority sitting on the court, along with a history of rulings in favor of religious expression, this may be the court poised to set precedent for the future.

“Coach was suspended because he could be seen by others engaged in a religious activity. And look, if that’s why someone can be fired from their job, then the First Amendment really is devoid of any meaning if we can simply say you offend me because I can see you engaged in religious activity and that’s enough to fire a public employee, then no job for any teacher, any coach, that is a person of faith, is safe,” Kennedy’s attorney said. “If anybody is going to be forced into the choice of having to choose between the job that they love and their faith, well, that’s not America anymore and that’s certainly not the First Amendment.”

The justices are expected to have a ruling before heading out on summer recess.

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