The Supreme Court is considering a case about a football coach’s praying

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court will deal with a dispute between public school officials and a former high school football coach who wanted to kneel and pray on the field after games.

The case before judges Monday involves Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. For years, after games, the coach would kneel in the middle of the field and lead the students to prayer. The school district eventually found out what he was doing and told him to stop.

Kennedy’s attorneys say the constitutional freedoms of speech and religion allow him to pray on the field, with students free to attend. But the school district says Kennedy’s religious speech encroached on students’ own religious freedom rights, which could pressure students to pray, and opened up the district itself to lawsuits. The school district says it tried to work out a solution so Kennedy, who is Christian, could pray privately before or after the game, including on the field after the students left, but Kennedy’s lawsuit followed.


The case comes before the court at a time when conservative judges make up the majority of the court and have been sympathetic to the concerns of religious figures and groups, including groups challenging coronavirus restrictions on places of worship.

But the court can also agree on cases relating to religion. Last year, for example, the court unanimously sided with a Catholic foster home who said their religious beliefs prevented them from working with same-sex couples. During that term, the judges ruled 8-1 for a Texas death row inmate who tried to get his pastor to pray aloud and touch him while his execution was being carried out.


The case from Bremerton, meanwhile, has already attracted the attention of the judges. In 2019, the judges declined to intervene in the case earlier. However, four judges criticized the rulings of the lower courts for the school district, writing that an appellate court’s “understanding of the right to free speech of public school teachers is worrying.”

Kennedy began working at Bremerton High School in 2008, and it was his habit at the end of games — after players and coaches from both teams met in midfield to shake hands — to pause and kneel to shake hands to pray. Kennedy said he wanted to thank his players for their performance and for their safety, among other things.

Kennedy initially prayed alone at the 50-yard line at the end of games, but the students joined him and over time he began giving a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy says he never asked players to join or asked a student to pray. He also led the team to prayer in the dressing room before games, a practice that existed before him.


The school district only found out about Kennedy’s practice in 2015. He told him at the time that while he was still “on duty” as a coach, he needed to stop praying with students or engaging in openly religious activities. After Kennedy continued to pray in the field, he was placed on paid leave. His contract expired and he did not apply to coach the following year, the school says.

A decision is expected before the court goes on summer recess.

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418.

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Jaclyn Diaz

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