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Supreme Court backs high school football coach placed on leave for praying after games

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former Washington high school football coach who was sent on leave after his team’s games to pray on the 50-yard line.

The case pits the First Amendment right to freedom of expression against the separation of church and state, and the Supreme Court ruling could pave the way for fewer restrictions on religious freedom in schools.

In a 6-3 ruling, the court sided with former coach Joseph Kennedy, who was put on furlough after the school said his prayers violated the separation of church and state.

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy (pictured in March), a Marine, said the district infringed on his religious freedom by refusing him to continue praying at the 50-yard line after games.  Supreme Court to rule on its case on Monday

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy (pictured in March), a Marine, said the district infringed on his religious freedom by refusing him to continue praying at the 50-yard line after games. Supreme Court to rule on its case on Monday

Kennedy said he would be happy to return to the district to coach again if he wins the case

Kennedy said he would be happy to return to the district to coach again if he wins the case

Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him.  At least one player spoke anonymously to say he felt pressured to play

Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him. At least one player spoke anonymously to say he felt pressured to play

The question was whether a public school employee praying alone, but in front of the students, represented an unprotected “government speech” and if not, it violates the First Amendment founding clause, which the government forbids making any law “concerning the establishment of a faith.”

The Supreme Court ruled ‘no’ on both sides.

The ruling of the conservative judges comes as no surprise, as a lower court had ruled against Kennedy, they made a public statement about the preliminary ruling.

While the school had argued that they didn’t want students to feel pressured to pray with Joseph Kennedy, Kennedy’s attorneys argued that their client had only offered silent, solitary prayers after his team’s games.

Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote in a majority opinion: “A government agency attempted to punish a person for holding a short, silent, personal religious celebration that was doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisals rested on a misconception that it had a duty to seek out and suppress religious practices, even if it permits comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.’

Kennedy, an assistant high school soccer coach for the Navy and Washington State, said the Bremerton School District infringed on his religious freedom by refusing to allow him to continue praying in midfield after games following an incident in which students accompanied him in September 2015. in prayer.

District attorneys said Kennedy was allowed to pray alone, but after the coach prayed three more times with students on the field and in the locker rooms, he was given administrative leave and his contract was revoked in 2016, according to the New York Times. reported.

The district added that it had received a slew of complaints and threats after news of Kennedy’s prayers for allegedly influencing students to join him.

Richard B. Katskee, a lawyer for the Bremerton School District, said the school had the right to ask employees to refrain from public prayer if students felt pressured to participate. But some conservative court judges made holes in this argument.

They said the school initially claimed they should stop praying to Kennedy because the school would be seen as an advocate of religion. They suggested that fear of compulsion was a rationalization made after the fact. †

Despite the school district's injunction, Kennedy was pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students.  His attorney's allegation that banning prayer violates his freedom of religion, while the district argues that directing prayers is a violation of the student's own religious freedom

Despite the school district’s injunction, Kennedy was pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students. His attorney’s allegation that banning prayer violates his freedom of religion, while the district argues that directing prayers is a violation of the student’s own religious freedom

The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured).  After repeated cases, the district chose to drop its contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to reapply

The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured). After repeated cases, the district chose to drop its contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to reapply

“It’s not audible to all players,” Judge Brett Kavanaugh said. ‘They’re not all here. They don’t have to be there. It is not a team event. … You trust it to be visible, and then the question is, how far does that go? The coach makes the sign of the cross just before the game. Could a school dismiss the carriage for the sign of the cross?’

Katskee, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said such a display would be “perfect” as long as the coach didn’t address the team or make himself the center of attention.

“I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not putting yourself in the spotlight as the head coach of a game,” Kavanaugh said.

But Liberal Justice Elena Kagan suggested the school may be concerned that students might feel pressured to participate in prayer to win the coach’s favor.

Kagan said the school could have thought, “We’re afraid the students will feel like he can put me in a football game or not. He can give me a 10 for math, or not. And this is a form of coercion that is inappropriate for 16-year-olds,” Kagan said.

Kennedy claimed that praying in the 50-yard is his own personal ritual, which he has been doing since 2008, and that he has never asked students to join him.

After a few games some players asked him what he was doing and he told them he was ‘thanks God for you’ before some players, who said they were Christians, asked if they could join.

“It was never something where it was mandatory,” he told the Times.

While Kennedy claims no one has ever felt pressured to join him, one student player had come forward anonymously to say that despite his own beliefs, he took part in one of the prayers for fear of losing playing time.

When the school district learned of Kennedy’s practice in 2015, it told him to stop praying with students or engage in overt religious activities while on duty as a coach. He continued to pray on the field, although his lawyers say he stopped directing students and was placed on paid leave.

His contract expired and he did not reapply as a coach the following year, the school says.

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