Republican lawmakers and a group founded by former Vice President Mike Pence filed amicus briefs this week asking the Supreme Court to take up the case of a Washington state high school football coach who said he was fired from his job for praying on the 50-yard line after a game.
Per court documents, as a coach for the Bremerton High School football team, Joseph Kennedy would wait until players left the field, then he would take a knee in silent prayer. The superintendent of Bremerton School District sent a letter to Kennedy objecting to his conduct, writing that the coach “neglected his responsibility to supervise what his players were doing” during that time and that his on-field prayer “would lead a reasonable observer to think that the district was endorsing religion.” Following the letter, Kennedy’s contract with the school district was not renewed, resulting in his termination.
Kennedy later filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District that was dismissed by a federal district court. He appealed, but a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit backed the lower court, finding that Kennedy praying on the field was not protected because he was acting as a public employee rather than a private individual.
In 2019, Kennedy asked the Supreme Court to review the case, which the court denied, although four justices filed a concurring opinion saying the denial “does not signify that the Court necessarily agrees with the decision (much less the opinion)” of the appeals court, citing “important unresolved factual questions.”
The case then went back to the lower courts. Earlier this year, the Ninth Circuit panel again denied an appeal for review. Kennedy once again appealed to the Supreme Court.
The brief said the Ninth Circuit made “two egregious errors of law which, if left uncorrected, would make it difficult if not impossible for public officials of faith to reconcile the requirements of their religion with the performance of public service.”
“First, when a public official engages in silent prayer on bended knee following the completion of one of his most important job responsibilities, that prayer is universally understood by all reasonable observers to be an act of personal thanks and devotion. It is absurd to label an act of obvious personal gratitude and humility governmental speech that is prohibited by the Constitution,” the brief said, adding that “it is commonplace in our Republic” for public officials to pray in public.
The brief also argued the Ninth Circuit “fundamentally misapplies the Establishment Clause in holding that Bremerton School District … was required to prohibit Coach Kennedy’s prayer in order to avoid an Establishment Clause violation.”
“Personal speech cannot violate the Establishment Clause. Silent prayers of thanks, briefly and personally offered, do not violate the Establishment Clause simply because the public can see them. BSD never should have prohibited Coach Kennedy’s personal prayer in the first place,” it said.
Signatories of the Advancing American Freedom brief included Young America’s Foundation, Alliance Defending Freedom, Coalition for Jewish Values, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Seema Verma, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
In their own amicus brief, Republican members of Congress, led by Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford and Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, argued, “This case is about far more than a coach kneeling on a football field to pray.”
“The Ninth Circuit’s ruling imperils the most basic forms of individual religious expression by each of the public school teachers and coaches within its jurisdiction,” the lawmakers said. “The effect is alarming. Take, for example, a teacher who observes Ash Wednesday, or a principal who visibly bows her head in silent prayer in a busy cafeteria before eating. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling requires schools to tamp down all such expressions––or terminate all teachers, coaches, and staff who will not check their religion at the door––under the auspice of the Establishment Clause.”
In a statement, Lankford said, “In America, we have more than the freedom of worship; we have the free exercise of religion.”
“Each person can have a faith, change their faith, or have no faith. In this case, the school district wanted to choose the time and place for private prayer for one of its employees,” Lankford said. “Our government does not have the authority to force anyone to practice your faith in the time and space of its choosing. Government cannot and should not restrict a person praying over their lunch, wearing a crucifix, having a copy of scripture on their desk or kneeling to pray silently after a football game. The right to live your faith is one of the most basic principles recognized by our Constitution. Coach Kennedy’s right to live his faith is his inherent right.”
But Pence and the GOP lawmakers aren’t the only ones asking the high court to take up the case: Former professional football players Steve Largent and Chad Hennings filed a brief in support of Kennedy as well. Largent is also a former member of Congress.
Largent and Hennings argued in their brief that “there is no shortage of athletes and coaches who can be found pointing in the sky, kissing a crucifix, or otherwise ostensibly offering words of praise or gratitude to a deity for their on-field successes.”
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Original Author: Kate Scanlon
Original Location: Pence and GOP lawmakers ask SCOTUS to back coach fired for prayer