Coach who misplaced his job for praying on the sphere brings case to Supreme Court docket

Washington — It was after watching the sports activities movie “Dealing with the Giants” that Joseph Kennedy, then a brand new coach for the Bremerton Excessive College soccer crew in Washington state, was impressed to wish.

And so, after teaching his first recreation for the Bremerton Knights in August 2008, Kennedy walked to the 50-yard-line, “on the battlefield,” the retired U.S. Marine says, and took a knee to supply a prayer of gratitude. 

It started with the coach, alone, briefly thanking God after the ultimate whistle for preserving the gamers secure, for truthful play and for spirited competitors. However quickly sufficient, the variety of gamers gathering alongside Kennedy after video games grew to incorporate a majority of the crew, although participation assorted. At the least one mum or dad said his son felt “compelled to take part” out of worry he would lose out on enjoying time.

And shortly sufficient, the prayers by Kennedy, himself a graduate of Bremerton Excessive College, advanced into motivational speeches with spiritual references.

Praying Football Coach
Joe Kennedy, a former assistant soccer coach at Bremerton Excessive College in Bremerton, Washington, poses for a photograph March 9, 2022, on the college’s soccer subject.  Ted S. Warren / AP

For seven years, Kennedy continued his follow of praying on the sphere with no points. However in September 2015, the Bremerton College District realized what he was doing when an opposing crew’s coach informed Bremerton Excessive College’s principal that Kennedy requested his gamers to hitch him for the post-game prayer, saying he “thought it was fairly cool” the district would enable such exercise, based on court records.

That statement by the opposing coach served because the catalyst for a yearslong battle between Kennedy and the college district, the venue for which shifted from the gridiron to the courts when the coach misplaced his job after defying directives to finish his follow of praying on the sphere.

Kennedy argued he was participating in constitutionally protected spiritual expression, and on Monday, the USA Supreme Court docket will weigh his bid to get his teaching job again and be allowed to wish at midfield after video games.

“It appears so easy to me: It is a man taking a knee by himself on the 50-yard-line, which to me does not seem to be it wants a rocket scientist or a Supreme Court docket justice to determine,” he informed CBS Information. “I did not wish to trigger any waves, and the factor I wished to do was coach soccer and thank God after the sport.”

However for defenders of the college district, Kennedy was appearing as an agent of the state who, as a public college worker, violated the spiritual freedom of scholars who felt strain to pray-to-play.

“When a coach makes use of the ability of his job to be in a spot and have entry to college students at a time after they’re anticipated to encircle him and are available to him, that is an abuse of that energy and a violation of the Structure,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of People United for Separation of Church and State, informed CBS Information’ Jan Crawford. “Spiritual freedom will not be the precise to impose your faith on others. All of us must have it, in order that’s why the free train and institution clause work collectively to guard spiritual freedom for all of us.”

“Giving up will not be one thing that is in my blood”

After the Bremerton College District realized of Kennedy’s post-game follow of praying at midfield in September 2015, it launched an investigation into whether or not he was complying with the college board’s coverage on religious-related actions and practices. 

Whereas acknowledging that Kennedy had “not actively inspired, or required, participation” in both a pre-game prayer within the locker room or his “inspirational discuss at midfield” after video games,” the district stated in a letter dated September 17, 2015, that the actions possible would violate the First Modification’s Institution Clause and expose the district to “vital threat of legal responsibility.”

“Bremerton Excessive College legally dangers endorsing or favoring one set of non secular views over others and that is not what the Structure guarantees,” Laser stated. “Spiritual freedom, these 16 phrases of our First Modification of our Structure are a defend that protects spiritual freedom for all of us, not simply spiritual freedom for a few of us.”

The district informed Kennedy that his talks with college students should stay totally secular, and future spiritual exercise he engages in, together with prayer, should not intrude together with his job duties, have to be separate from any scholar exercise and will not have participation from the scholars. 

In compliance with the district’s request, Kennedy quickly stopped praying on the sphere after video games. However one month later, in mid-October 2015, he informed the district by an lawyer that he would resume saying a post-game prayer on the 50-yard-line after requesting a non secular lodging beneath Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the idea of faith.

“No affordable observer might conclude {that a} soccer coach who waits till the sport is over and the gamers have left the sphere after which walks to mid-field to say a brief, non-public, private prayer is talking on behalf of the state,” his lawyer stated in a letter to the Bremerton College District. “Fairly the alternative, Coach Kennedy is engaged in non-public spiritual expression upon which the state could not infringe.”

And so, after the ultimate whistle at Bremerton’s homecoming recreation on October 16, 2015, Kennedy shook fingers with the opposing crew, waited till gamers have been singing their combat tune, after which knelt on the 50-yard-line, bowed his head, and, joined by gamers from each groups, members of the media and the general public, prayed.

He did so once more for the subsequent two video games, after which the district placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave from his place as an assistant coach for violating its directives. Throughout a subsequent analysis of Kennedy’s efficiency, Bremerton’s athletic director recommended he not be rehired for the subsequent season, citing a failure to comply with district coverage and failure to oversee student-athletes after video games. 

Kennedy selected to not reapply for his teaching place at Bremerton Excessive College, and, in August 2016, filed suit in opposition to the Bremerton College District in federal district court docket in Tacoma, Washington, arguing it violated his constitutional rights to free speech and free train.

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Former Bermerton Excessive College soccer coach Joseph Kennedy (First Liberty Institute)

U.S. District Choose Ronald Leighton ruled against Kennedy, discovering that “whereas public colleges would not have unfettered discretion to limit an worker’s spiritual speech, they do have the power to stop a coach from praying on the heart of the soccer subject instantly after video games.” 

Kennedy appealed to the ninth U.S. Circuit Court docket of Appeals, which affirmed the district court docket’s ruling. He then turned to the Supreme Court docket, and in 2019, the excessive court docket declined to listen to his case.

In a press release from Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, the 4 justices stated it was untimely for the Supreme Court docket to listen to Kennedy’s case at the moment, however warned the ninth Circuit’s “understanding of the free speech rights of public college lecturers is troubling and will justify overview sooner or later.”

“What is probably most troubling in regards to the ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that may be understood to imply {that a} coach’s responsibility to function a superb position mannequin requires the coach to chorus from any manifestation of non secular religion — even when the coach is plainly not on responsibility,” Alito wrote.

After extra proceedings, Kennedy once more suffered losses within the decrease courts. A 3-judge panel of judges on the ninth Circuit dominated in March 2021 that the college district’s efforts to stop Kennedy from praying didn’t violate his constitutional rights, and his postgame speech on the sphere was speech as a authorities worker.

“At problem on this case will not be, as Kennedy makes an attempt to gloss it, a private and personal train of religion,” Choose Milan Smith Jr. wrote for the unanimous panel. “At problem was — in each sense of the phrase — an illustration, and, as a result of Kennedy demanded that it happen instantly after the ultimate whistle, it was an illustration essentially directed at college students and the attending public.”

The complete ninth Circuit declined to re-hear the case, and Kennedy once more appealed the choice to the Supreme Court docket in September. The excessive court docket agreed in January to take up the dispute.

“I used to be a Marine for 20 years. Supporting and defending the Structure means lots to me. Giving up will not be one thing that is in my blood, it isn’t in my nature,” Kennedy stated of his prolonged authorized combat to get his job again. ” I can have a look at myself within the mirror, have a look at my crew through the years, and maintain my head up excessive and look them within the eyes and say hey, I fought the great combat, I did not surrender.”

Kennedy’s court docket battle with the college district will come earlier than a Supreme Court docket that has shifted additional rightward since 2019, when the justices first spurned his request to listen to his case. Now with a 6-3 conservative majority, the excessive court docket has in current phrases been extra sympathetic to non secular rights.

“The state doesn’t personal each ounce of your free expression. They can not censor you from every part you do,” Jeremy Dys, particular counsel for First Liberty, which is representing Kennedy, informed CBS Information. “The Institution Clause doesn’t imply you could censor and stamp out any spiritual demonstration.”

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Cherry blossoms close to the Supreme Court docket on Monday, March 28, 2022. Bloomberg

“Brave to some and offensive to others”

In filings with the Supreme Court docket, attorneys for the district argue it acted inside its authority to control Kennedy’s “very public speech” and declare he “tells a breathless story of authoritarian authorities forbidding non-public spiritual expression, insisting that except the court docket applies his most well-liked authorized take a look at, spiritual follow will likely be quashed throughout the nation.”

Beneath the Supreme Court docket’s jurisprudence, the college district’s curiosity in shielding college students from spiritual coercion and stopping staff from “commandeering authorities occasions” outweighs Kennedy’s curiosity in praying with college students, the district argued.

Laser famous that Kennedy was not precluded from praying on his personal, even when he was thought of “on responsibility.” However it was the place and time at which he selected to interact within the follow that left college students feeling pressured to hitch.

“If this coach have been in actual fact doing what he says he was doing, which is praying in a personal and solitary method, we would not be right here, as a result of that is tremendous. You do not have to go away that behind whenever you develop into a public official,” she stated. “However spiritual freedom will not be the precise to make use of the ability of the state to favor one set of non secular beliefs over others, to impose one set of non secular beliefs on public college college students.”

The dispute between Kennedy and the Bremerton College District has attracted a slew of friend-of-the-court briefs, together with from present and former Nationwide Soccer League gamers, and former collegiate athletes and coaches.

In a single brief filed in assist of Kennedy on behalf of Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles and former NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, amongst others, the present and former gamers invoked Colin Kaepernick — although at first not by identify — kneeling in the course of the nationwide anthem to protest racial injustice.

“That follow, like Kennedy’s prayers, is controversial — brave to some and offensive to others,” they argued. “But when Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the district virtually definitely wouldn’t have argued that his speech was someway the state’s. Fairly, there would have been no query that it was protected non-public speech.”

Because the gamers “can attest from their expertise in any respect ranges of sports activities— highschool, faculty, and professional —  audiences perceive symbolic acts of speech on the sphere to replicate the views of the person athletes and coaches who interact in them, whether or not they’re Colin Kaepernick, Tim Tebow, Shaquille O’Neal, or Joe Kennedy. The evaluation doesn’t change as a result of the speech is spiritual moderately than political,” they informed the Supreme Court docket.

Dys, too, stated that the First Modification protects the rights of each Kaepernick and Kennedy to take a knee, whether or not in an expression of free speech or free train.

“One is speech and one is free train, however they’re inside a number of phrases of one another,” he stated. “They’re each protected by the First Modification, and so they’re allowed to have that proper.”

However a bunch of former skilled soccer gamers and collegiate athletes in assist of the college district warned the connection between a coach and athlete in highschool athletics is exclusive, as it’s “extremely prone to being coercive,” and must be thought of by the Supreme Court docket because it weighs the case.

“The report right here demonstrates that Mr. Kennedy’s actions had the propensity to, and did, lead gamers to really feel compelled to take part in Mr. Kennedy’s expressions of religion even when they might moderately not have finished so,” the previous athletes, together with former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former NFL working again Obafemi Ayanbadejo.

A call from the Supreme Court docket is anticipated by the top of June.

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