A former Washington state high school football coach who was fired for praying after games may finally be on track for a ruling in his favor after years of setbacks in the legal system.
Joseph Kennedy’s religious liberty case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, was heard on Monday by the Supreme Court, and based on the justices’ lines of questioning, it appears the conservative-leaning court was sympathetic to his cause.
The Washington Post reported that the questions raised by the court’s conservatives “indicated they believe the school district has misread the court’s precedents regarding government endorsement of religion, and perhaps were hostile to such demonstrations.”
For example, Justice Clarence Thomas questioned whether Kennedy would have been terminated or otherwise punished had he taken a knee during the singing of the national anthem in protest against racism.
Justice Samuel Alito piggybacked on of Thomas’ question, asking what the school district’s reaction would be if Kennedy had walked out to the center of the field after a game and waved the Ukrainian flag.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh pushed back on the school district’s characterization of Kennedy as an attention-seeker who was using his position of authority to coerce students into praying along with him. Kavanaugh suggested that it would be difficult for a coach to do anything discreetly during a game and noted that Kennedy’s postgame prayers were not required activities.
He also wondered how far a rule against government speech should be taken, asking, “Could a school fire the coach for the sign of the cross right before the game?”
In general, the conservative justices seemed to be interested in deciphering what exactly the school district determined to be official government speech and what kind of reaction they would have to different types of government speech.
In response, the district’s attorney, Richard Katskee, said the school could in fact punish a coach for engaging in those types of actions since it “doesn’t want its event taken over for political speech.”
But Alito shot back, saying, “Where is the school district rule that says that?”
The justice also went on to express some level of doubt regarding the notion that the district would have reacted in a similar fashion to those circumstances.
For years, Kennedy, a Christian and 20-year Marine veteran, has claimed that his First Amendment were violated when Bremerton School District ordered him to stop praying at the 50-yard line after games in 2015 and summarily fired him when he refused to stop.
But in subsequent court cases, the school district has defended its decision by arguing the coach was not exercising his religion in private.
The court’s three liberal justices appeared sympathetic to this line of thinking and, generally, were concerned to protect the school district’s authority to prohibit coercive practices. But their votes may not be enough, if most or all of the conservative justices side with Kennedy.
However, a case involving school prayer always presents a difficult balancing act, the Washington Free Beacon noted, and a narrow decision is perhaps to be expected.
The Supreme Court is set to issue a ruling on the case sometime this summer.