US Supreme Court tackles football coach's on-field prayers

Did coach's prayers and Christian-infused speeches amount to governmental speech?

 A general view of the Supreme Court building at the start of the court's new term in Washington (photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)
A general view of the Supreme Court building at the start of the court's new term in Washington
(photo credit: REUTERS / JONATHAN ERNST)

The US Supreme Court on Monday addressed the religious rights of government employees as it weighed an appeal by a Christian former public high school football coach in Washington state who was suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.

Read related: When is a prayer after a public-school football game constitutional?

The justices heard arguments in the case pitting the religious rights of individual workers against the Constitution's prohibition on the government endorsing a particular religion. The court's 6-3 conservative majority has taken a broad view of religious liberty in numerous cases.

Joseph Kennedy, who served as a part-time assistant football coach in the city of Bremerton, is appealing a lower court's ruling that rejected his claims that the school district's decision to suspend him violated his religious exercise and free speech rights under the US Constitution's First Amendment.

At issue is whether, as a public employee, Kennedy's prayers and Christian-infused speeches alongside players amounted to governmental speech, which can be regulated under Supreme Court precedents, or a private act separate from his official duties, which the First Amendment would protect.

The school district's lawyers have said Kennedy's legal team has distorted what actually happened, weaving a "breathless tale of authoritarian government forbidding private religious expression." Kennedy is represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty group.

The district has argued that Kennedy "made a spectacle" of delivering prayers and speeches, invited students to join him and courted media attention while acting in his capacity as a government employee. It added that such prayers coming from the coach could be coercive, while some parents said their children felt compelled to participate.

The San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled against Kennedy, finding that local officials would have violated the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion if they let his actions continue.

"Teachers and coaches remain individuals with First Amendment rights on school premises, and the suppression of the individual religious expression of teachers and coaches is not permitted, let alone required, by the First Amendment," Kennedy's lawyer, Paul Clement, said in court papers.

Kennedy served as an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Bremerton High School, from 2008 to 2015. The district said Kennedy delivered post-game prayers to crowds of players and others for years until officials learned about the religious nature of these sessions in 2015.

The district, concerned that Kennedy's actions could be perceived as an impermissible government endorsement of religion, notified him to stop the prayers while on duty, offering other private locations in the school as alternatives.

Kennedy initially appeared to comply, the district said, but later refused and made media appearances publicizing the dispute, attracting national attention. After repeatedly defying school officials' demands, he was placed on paid leave from his seasonal contract and did not re-apply as a coach for the subsequent season.

Kennedy's lawyers assert that he "lost his job" because of his actions, suing in federal court in 2016. Kennedy sought a court order to be reinstated as a coach, accusing officials of religious discrimination and violations of his free speech. Officials pointed out in court papers that Kennedy no longer lives in the school district and has moved to Florida, although he has said he would return if he got his job back.

The Supreme Court in recent years has expanded individual religious rights while also reducing the separation between church and state.

The justices are set to rule by the end of June on a challenge by two Christian families to a Maine state tuition assistance program that excludes private schools that promote religious beliefs. The court's conservatives during arguments in the case in December signaled support for the families.