The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard arguments in a case considering whether the employer of Joe Kennedy, a former high school football coach, violated his First Amendment rights by firing him for praying on the field after a game.
The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton, considers whether a public school employee saying a brief, quiet prayer alone but in sight of students is protected speech under the First Amendment or counts as “state action.” The court’s conservative justices challenged the notion that Kennedy’s speech could be interpreted as state action given Bremerton School District’s opposition to his public prayers.
“What if the coach, instead of taking a knee for a prayer, took a knee during the national anthem because of moral opposition to racism,” Justice Clarence Thomas asked. He also argued the prayers could not be interpreted as government speech since the school had condemned the behavior.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett also argued that Kennedy’s prayers did not violate the First Amendment because he was not speaking on behalf of the government when he prayed.
“What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith—even when the coach is plainly not on duty,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote when the court initially denied the case certiorari in 2019.
Bremerton School District argued that Kennedy’s prayers, while technically optional, were a form a government speech and made students feel pressured to join.
Kennedy had initially been reprimanded for giving players religious pep talks and leading prayers with those who chose to join, but stopped when the school requested, he explained. He was fired for continuing to pray on the field after his employer told him to stop.
“Unless the U.S. Supreme Court rules in my favor, teachers could be fired for praying over their lunch in the cafeteria if students can see them,” Kennedy wrote in The Wall Street Journal Sunday. “I just want to be back on the field with my guys, building a team to accomplish a mission. I hope the Supreme Court agrees.”