The Praying Coach and the Supreme Court
Having been fired for praying after games, SCOTUS will determine if Joseph Kennedy’s termination was religious discrimination and a violation of free speech.
In the latest iteration of trying to excise prayer from schools, a former high school football coach was dragged before the highest court to defend his freedom of speech and expression. The case is Joseph Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and opening arguments were heard on Monday.
Joseph Kennedy made a practice of praying at the 50-yard line after games. Sometimes students joined him, sometimes not. An opposing team took umbrage with this practice and brought it to the attention of school administrators, calling it “endorsement of a particular religion.” Kennedy was suspended and then fired after hiring lawyers to help him protect his First Amendment rights. The school argues that his drawing attention to himself in this manner was not protected speech because he was doing it in the capacity of a football coach and not as a private citizen and had caused a ruckus at a homecoming game.
The justices first need to determine whether Kennedy’s firing was based solely on his praying, which would be religious discrimination. Then they need to determine whether he was using this prayer time to coerce students or to give any favors to those who joined him, which would be tantamount to endorsement of a religion. They also want to determine where the lines are between being a coach at a public school and being a private citizen praying publicly.
According to The Washington Free Beacon: “The district did not cite the homecoming game in their suspension. Instead, the district points to midfield prayers at two October games where Kennedy prayed inconspicuously, without students.”
The case gets much stickier when it comes to determining whether Kennedy’s actions were coercion or free speech. Kennedy’s attorney, Paul Clement, pointed out that “a school does not endorse private religious speech just because it fails to censor it.”
Richard Katskee, a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State who is representing Bremerton School District, was adamant that Kennedy’s actions were attention-grabbing. Justice Brett Kavanaugh asked Katskee if it was attention-grabbing for a coach to cross himself at the beginning of a game, to which Katskee conceded it wasn’t as long as the coach didn’t draw attention to himself. Justice Kavanaugh then said, “I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not making yourself the center of attention as the head coach of a game.”
Justice Sonya Sotomayor alternatively sided with Katskee with this “incisive” statement: “[Kennedy] is the one who chose to publicize his prayer. I don’t know of any other religion that requires you to get at the 50-yard line.”
Every athlete and coach of every religion who prays or crosses themselves or shows any religious inclinations publicly is open to court censure, according to Justice Sotomayor’s thoughtless statement. And there are plenty of examples of players and coaches who display their beliefs in public, like Tim Tebow, Mo Salah, and technically even Colin Kaepernick, should her “logic” be applied.
Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out that the real issue is the timing and location of the prayers, not necessarily the praying itself.
As far as free speech and free expression go, Coach Kennedy was praying silently. He never coerced students into joining him in prayer. He should be found not in violation of prayer in schools under previous cases like Engel v. Vitale, Pickering v. Board of Education, or Lemon v. Kurtzman.
The final ruling on this case will not come until June, but this presents an important opportunity. As Clement pointed out in his closing remarks, “At a certain point, the responsibility of the school is to teach the important lesson that private speech is protected even for teachers and coaches.”
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