(4-25-22) The Supreme Court gave a mostly sympathetic hearing Monday to a former high school football coach Joe Kennedy whose prayers on the field after a game may open the door for broader expression of religion in public schools.

The court’s conservative justices said they were prepared to amend past strict rulings that said public schools and their employees may not “endorse” or promote religion. They said that goes too far and violates the free speech and religious rights of school employees. Private religious expression deserves to be protected, they said, even when it takes place at school.

In today’s hearing-Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh said-

“It’s not audible to all players. They’re not all there. They don’t have to be there. It’s not a team event. … You’re relying on it being visible, and then the question is, how far does that go? The coach does the sign of the cross right before the game. Could a school fire the coach for the sign of the cross?”

A look at the case…

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

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

(2) whether, 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.

Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton (Washington) High School, initially prayed alone as he kneeled on the 50 yard line after the game, but players soon asked if they could join him, and his prayers eventually evolved into motivational speeches with religious references.

Kennedy and the district both acknowledge he never required Knights players to join him in his prayers at midfield, some parents said their children felt pressured to participate out of fear they would lose out on playing time.

Kennedy’s practice of praying on the field continued for seven years without incident. But that changed in September 2015, when an opposing team’s coach told Bremerton High School’s principal that Kennedy asked his players to join him for the post-game prayer and “thought it was pretty cool” the district would allow such activity.

The district then launched an investigation into whether Kennedy was complying with the school board’s policy on religious-related activities and practices, and later issued a directive prohibiting on-duty school employees from engaging in “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable to” students and the attending public.

Kennedy, who continued praying at midfield after games, was then placed on administrative leave from his position as assistant coach for violating the district’s directive. During a performance evaluation after the season, Bremerton’s athletic director recommended Kennedy not be rehired, citing a failure to follow district policy and failure to supervise student-athletes after games. 

Kennedy chose not to reapply for his position and, in August 2016, sued the school district in federal court, arguing it violated his First Amendment rights.

In one brief filed in support of Kennedy on behalf of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles and former NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, among others, — mentioned kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

“That practice, like Kennedy’s prayers, is controversial — courageous to some and offensive to others. But if Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the district almost certainly would not have argued that his speech was somehow the state’s. Rather, there would have been no question that it was protected private speech.”

But another group of former professional football players and collegiate athletes, including former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former NFL running back Obafemi Ayanbadejo, that support the school district said the relationship between a coach and athlete in high school athletics is unique, as it is “highly susceptible to being coercive.”

“The record here demonstrates that Mr. Kennedy’s actions had the propensity to, and did, lead players to feel compelled to participate in Mr. Kennedy’s expressions of faith even if they would rather not have done so.”

A decision in the case, No. 21-418 Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is expected by summer.