U.S. Supreme Court takes up case centered on prayer on high school football field

WASHINGTON — The nation’s highest court is considering the question of how or when public school employees can pray on the job and include students in that prayer.

The case centers on a former assistant high school football coach who said his constitutional rights were violated when he was told he couldn’t pray on the field after games.

Joe Kennedy said he started post-game prayers in 2008 and did it alone until some players asked what he was doing.

“They said, ‘hey can we join you?’ And I was like, ‘it’s a free country you can do whatever you want to do,’” said Kennedy.

But the Bremerton school district in Washington State said that violated the district’s policies and the constitution which mandates government neutrality when it comes to religion.

Kennedy was not rehired in 2016.

He took his case to court and after years of legal battles in lower courts, it went before the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday.

“The responsibility of the school is to teach the important lesson that private speech is protected even for teachers and coaches,” said Paul Clement in court, Kennedy’s attorney. “The district’s sole reasons for its actions was out of endorsement concerns.”

“After seven years, it really does mean a lot to be able to be heard by the facts of the case,” said Kennedy after the arguments wrapped up.

Richard Katskee, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argued that the district did the right thing to protect the religious freedom of students.

“No one doubts that public school employees can have public prayers by themselves at work even if students can see,” said Katskee in court. “That wasn’t good enough for Mr. Kennedy. He insisted on audible prayers at the 50-yard line with students.”

Both supporters for Kennedy and opponents came out to the steps of the Supreme Court as arguments were underway.

One protester held a sign that said “protect religious freedom” in defense of Kennedy.

Clergy members from Bremerton also turned out – but it was to express support for the school district.

“Faith and government, they’ve got to be separate,” said Rev. Kathleen Kingslight of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bremerton, WA.

“Prayer is a sacred act,” said Rev. Meghan Dowling of Bremerton United Methodist Church. “It should never be used to manipulate or coerce or pressure, especially vulnerable students.”

The highest court holds a conservative majority of 6-3.

The Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision in the case by the summer.