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Justices to hear ex-coach's prayer case

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has agreed Friday to hear an appeal from a high school football coach who lost his job after defying school administrators by kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after his team’s games.

The coach, Joseph Kennedy, said the actions of School Board officials in Bremerton, Wash., violated his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion. The officials argued that the school was entitled to require that its employees refrain from public prayer.

When the Supreme Court declined to hear an earlier appeal in the case in 2019, four justices issued a statement questioning a preliminary ruling in favor of the officials, issued by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

“The 9th Circuit’s understanding of the free-speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote at the time. He was joined by Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Clarence Thomas.

“What is perhaps most troubling about the 9th Circuit’s opinion,” Alito added, “is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty.”

After further proceedings, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit again ruled against Kennedy, saying that school officials were entitled to forbid his public prayers to avoid a potential violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

The full 9th Circuit declined to rehear the case over the objections of 11 judges. The two sides disagreed about how to characterize Kennedy’s actions.

Judge Milan Smith Jr., author of the panel opinion, wrote that “Kennedy made it his mission to intertwine religion with football.”

“He led the team in prayer in the locker room before each game, and some players began to join him for his postgame prayer, too, where his practice ultimately evolved to include full-blown religious speeches to, and prayers with, players from both teams after the game, conducted while the players were still on the field and while fans remained in the stands,” Smith wrote.

In response, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain said the panel opinion had gotten things backward.

“It is axiomatic that teachers do not ‘shed’ their First Amendment protections ‘at the schoolhouse gate,'” he wrote, quoting a 1969 Supreme Court decision. “Yet the opinion in this case obliterates such constitutional protections by announcing a new rule that any speech by a public-school teacher or coach, while on the clock and in earshot of others, is subject to plenary control by the government.”

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the School Board, urged the justices to consider the interests of students when it hears the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418.

“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports,” Laser said in a statement. “No student should ever be made to feel excluded — whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field — because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.”

Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty Institute, which represents Kennedy, said in a statement that “no teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public.”

“By taking this important case,” he said, “the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”