Supreme Court won't hear case of HS football coach fired for on-field prayer

The case caught Donald Trump's attention during the presidential campaign and he called it "very, very sad and outrageous."
Image: Former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy at Bremerton Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2015.
Former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy at Bremerton Memorial Stadium on Nov. 5, 2015. Kennedy is in a conflict with the Bremerton School District over his silent prayer after football games.Larry Steagall / Kitsap Sun via AP file

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By Pete Williams

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Tuesday to take up the appeal of a Washington state high school football coach who lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field immediately after games.

Joseph Kennedy's firing as assistant coach at Bremerton High School in 2015 made headlines nationwide. During a 2016 campaign event, Donald Trump called it "very, very sad and outrageous."

Kennedy became a coach in 2008 and later began offering a brief prayer on the field after games ended and the players and coaches had met midfield to shake hands. He would drop to one knee and, in the words of his Supreme Court appeal, "offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship and spirited competition."

His religious beliefs, Kennedy's appeal said, "require him to give thanks through prayer at the end of each game."

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No one complained about the prayers, but when school district officials became aware, they reminded him of a policy that prohibits school staff from indirectly encouraging students to engage in religious activity or discouraging them from doing so, because it would be perceived as endorsing or opposing religious activity.

Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by players in prayer in Bremerton, Washington, on Oct. 16, 2015.Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun via AP file

Kennedy briefly stopped his prayers but then resumed them, and his dust up with the school district attracted widespread attention.

After a game in October 2015, he knelt on the 50-yard line and was soon surrounded by other coaches and players, as well as spectators who came onto the field from the stands. A week later, after again praying on the field after a game, he was placed on leave. The district did not re-hire him for the following season.

He sued, claiming the school district violated his rights of free expression and religious freedom, but lower federal courts ruled against him. They held that his prayers were not entitled to the kind of protection an individual would have, because he was acting in his capacity as a public employee and disregarding a requirement for the government to remain neutral in religious matters.

He was dressed in school colors, still on the job, and responsible for the conduct of his players, the trial judge said, and a reasonable observer would have seen his actions as a coach "participating in, in fact leading, an orchestrated session of faith."

In his appeal, Kennedy said the Supreme Court has long held that teachers and students do not give up all their First Amendment protections while at school. If the rulings against him are allowed to stand, everything a teacher says or does in view of students would be unprotected.

"Donning a hijab or yarmulke or making the sign of the cross in the school cafeteria could be made a fireable offense," his lawyers said.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and other religious groups urged the Supreme Court to take the case. The Constitution "does not require schools to be policed as religion-free zones," they said.