The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday will hear the case of a former public high school football coach who was told by school officials to stop publicly praying on the field after games.
“The whole idea of just because I’m working there, I have no rights anymore as an American?” former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy told Fox News.
“When do I stop representing the school district? And that’s what we’re kind of asking, just a simple thing: Can I pray after a football game?”
At issue is whether the First Amendment protects Kennedy’s right to publicly express his faith by praying on the field — often with students — or whether his prayers serve as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s ban on the government endorsing a religion.
“The prayer after the football game — that was just myself, I would just take a knee at the 50-yard line after football game,” Kennedy told Fox.
“After a few months, the kids would say: Coach, what are you doing out there? And I just said I was thanking God for what you did. They asked if they could join. And I said: it’s America, a free country, you do what you want to do. And that’s how that kind of started.”
But some parents complained, claiming they were concerned their children would be pressured to join Kennedy in prayer.
“The school district said it did not learn Kennedy was leading players in prayer until it heard it from another team’s coach in September 2015. Administrators told him he was not to participate in religious activities with students, and any of his own religious observation must be either non-demonstrative or should occur without students,” according The Associated Press.
Kennedy listened at first — but then decided to stand up for both his faith and what he saw as his constitutional rights by continuing to pray on the field.
“The coach was then put on paid leave. Both sides dispute whether he was later fired or decided eventually not to return for the following season,” Fox reported.
A brief filed by the school district said that the “District’s interests in protecting students from religious coercion and in preventing employees from commandeering government events outweigh Kennedy’s interest in praying with the students on the 50-yard line,” according to The Washington Post.
The First Liberty Institute, which is defending Kennedy, disagrees.
“Coach Kennedy simply wants to pray by himself at the 50-yard line. That’s the commitment he made before God,” First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys told Fox.
“They [school leaders] refused to honor that. And now here we are seven years later, arguing about whether or not someone could be fired from their job just because the public can see him engage in a private act of worship.”