- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2022

The high school football coach fired for praying on the 50-yard-line and the parent concerned about prayer at a public school agree on one thing: The whole legal battle — one that’s now reached the Supreme Court — has been crazy.

Joseph Kennedy, who coached high school football at Bremerton School District for about eight years, would give thanks to God on the 50-yard-line after games. Sometimes he was joined by players, while other times he was not.

But once school officials learned of the prayer — seven years after he began his routine — lawyers intervened and the coach was eventually fired.

He has now taken his case to the Supreme Court and says he is baffled that a prayer could bring overwhelming media and activist attention to the controversy in the small community in Washington state.

“What’s the big deal?” Mr. Kennedy said of his choice to pray. “It’s so benign, it’s crazy.”

Paul Peterson, whose children attended school in the district for years, said protesters would attend the games and media would show up at the field as the controversy unfolded.

“It turned into what was really a spectacle,” he said. “It became something that it isn’t. It’s a football game — we are there to celebrate the kids and to support them.”

Mr. Peterson argues that parents in taxpayer-funded public schools should control their children’s religious instruction — not teachers or coaches.

“As a parent, you should have the opportunity to raise your children in the way they want to be raised,” he said. “That’s the job of the parents, not the job of the school districts.”

According to court documents, the coach would kneel and pray alone for 15 to 30 seconds. He says he did not coerce students to join him, and if they did, it was voluntary.

He refused to stop praying after complaints, citing his First Amendment rights. He was eventually terminated.

But according to Mr. Peterson, whose child was in the band, the prayer huddle first looked like a post-game meeting. It was only after it became known prayer was actually taking place that concerns grew.

A lower court ruled in favor of the school district, but the Supreme Court has agreed to review the case. Lawyers expect to make arguments before the justices as early as next month, though an official date for a hearing has not been set.

A lawyer representing the coach, Stephanie Taub with the First Liberty Institute, said the problem is that school districts believe they have to shut down prayer altogether, citing the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, instead of remaining neutral.

“It’s a pretty messy area of constitutional law,” she said. “A court clarifying that you can engage in a brief personal prayer — it would be novel and pretty important.”

The Supreme Court in a 1962 case ruled that requiring public school students to recite a school-written prayer in class was unconstitutional, but the high court has also protected free speech rights at public schools. In the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the justices ruled in favor of students who protested the Vietnam War while on school grounds, saying they do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

But Rachel Laser, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State who is representing the school district, said allowing prayer in school would set a “radical” standard. She said officials tried to accommodate Mr. Kennedy, but he refused to comply. 

She warned if the high court ruled in favor of the coach, it would violate students’ religious freedom by effectively coercing them into prayer or feeling left out if they did not participate.

“It would create a radical new standard that violates students’ religious freedom across the country in all of our public schools and it undermines a foundational principle of democracy,” Ms. Laser said.

Ms. Laser asked the high court not to even hear the case, arguing the coach has since moved to Florida while the legal battle was pending, registered to vote there, and identifies as a “Floridian.” She said that suggests there’s no more controversy in Bremerton.

But the coach said he only moved to Florida temporarily to care for his ailing father-in-law. If he were to win his case, the coach said he would move back and start coaching right away.

“I am just going to live in faith and trust that everything is going to work out,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I take it one step at a time.”

The case is Joseph Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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