SCOTUS agrees to hear case of high school football coach fired over on-field prayers

In a win for conservatives committed to the cause of religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court this month agreed to hear the case of a Washington State high school football coach who was relieved of his duties for conducting on-field prayers after games, as the Washington Examiner reports.

The controversy began in 2015 when Joe Kennedy, then at the helm of the Bremerton High School football team, was fired for disobeying an order from the local school district to cease holding silent prayers at midfield for 15-30 seconds after games concluded, an activity which began as a strictly solitary one, but then grew once a number of young players asked to join.

Even though no complaints were lodged about the brief, post-game prayers, school district officials reminded Kennedy of an existing policy against school staff members indirectly encouraging or discouraging religious activities, and eventually the disagreement led to the coach’s dismissmal.

Battling to preserve his right to religious freedom, Kennedy then sued the school district over the job loss, explaining his rationale to Fox News last year by saying, “The First Amendment really means a lot to me. It is really terrible today in America that somebody can be fired just for expressing their faith. So I am just fighting so that no one else ever has to go through this and doesn’t have to choose between their job and their faith.”

Lower courts did not rule in favor of Kennedy’s claims, holding that the on-field prayers did not merit the same type of protections if held by an individual citizen because he was acting in the capacity of a public employee bound by a duty to maintain neutrality in terms of religion, according to NBC News.

Though the high court declined to hear Kennedy’s case back in 2019 at an earlier stage in the litigation, several justices on the panel’s conservative wing suggested at the time that they found some of the lower court rulings in the matter problematic, and that the former coach could still prevail as the case went on.

Ultimately, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Kennedy’s firing was indeed lawful, and that decision prompted his current appeal to the highest court in the land.

Heralding the justices’ decision to hear arguments in the matter, Kelly Shackleford, one of the attorneys representing Kennedy, said, “No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public. 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.”

Arguments in the case are expected to be heard this spring, with a final decision anticipated by late June, at the end of what promises to be a term filled with pivotal rulings on everything from religious liberty to gun rights to abortion.