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Supreme Court to hear case of Christian football coach fired for praying on field after games

Coach Kennedy
Coach Kennedy at the Bremerton High School football field. |

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of a Christian high school football coach who was fired from his job for praying on the field after games.

The Supreme Court announced Friday it will hear oral arguments in the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which former Seattle-area football coach, Joe Kennedy, is seeking to reverse a lower court decision that allowed the school district to fire him because fans and students could see him take a knee in silent prayer at the 50-yard line after football games.

In 2016, Kennedy sued the school district after being suspended in 2015 for his practice of praying on the football field after games, accusing officials of violating his religious freedom, and has been fighting the legal battle ever since.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty, a law firm based in Plano, Texas, which is helping to represent Kennedy, said in a statement. “By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”

Paul Clement, former U.S. solicitor general, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and First Liberty volunteer attorney, said the case “goes to the heart of the First Amendment, to the justices.”

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit had previously ruled against Kennedy in 2017.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case, sending the case back to the lower court level, with U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruling against Kennedy in 2020.  

Last March, the Ninth Circuit had again ruled against him.

“Six years away from the football field has been far too long,” Kennedy said. “I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love.”

While the Supreme Court had declined to review the case in January 2019, it allowed the lower courts to continue to develop the factual record.

“At that time, four justices (Justice Alito joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh) attached a statement signaling that the court would be open to hearing the case at a future time, saying in part, ‘The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,’” First Liberty explained.

Former Vice President Mike Pence; Tommy Bowden, son of legendary football coach Bobby Bowden; NFL Hall of Famer Steve Largent; and three-time Super Bowl winner Chad Hennings are among many others who filed “friend-of-the-court” briefs urging the Supreme Court to take the case, the law firm said.

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