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Punished for Private Prayer? Supreme Court Hears the Case of Coach Kennedy and Faith on the Field

On Monday morning the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Its decision – involving a Christian high school football coach banned from praying on the 50-yard line after games – will tell us whether the Justices have a balanced understanding of the freedoms of speech and the exercise of religion as well as a proper understanding of the Establishment Clause. 

After Monday’s argument, it seems clear that most of them do.

Some background: Joseph Kennedy is a former U.S. Marine who in 2008 became an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington – the same school he graduated from in 1988. He is a devout Christian who believes he is compelled by his faith to “give thanks through prayer” at the end of each game. For years, Kennedy has knelt on the 50-yard line and said a short prayer after games. After first, he prayed alone. Eventually, some players asked if they could join him. “This is a free country,” he told them. 

Kennedy prayed after games for seven years. Sometimes players from the opposing team did as well. In the fall of 2015, an employee from another school congratulated Bremerton’s principal for permitting their coach to give witness to his faith in such an unlikely public setting. 

That supportive comment set off a firestorm. 

The school district opened an investigation into Kennedy’s practice. It amended its policies and enacted a sweeping new ban on “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.” As an “accommodation,” the district said that Kennedy could pray after games in a “private location within the school building, athletic facility, or press box.” It was unclear how the school district planned to “accommodate” Kennedy’s religious expression after away games. 

Undeterred by the school district’s authoritarian tactics, Coach Kennedy continued his private prayer on the field after games. The school district placed him on administrative leave and gave him a poor performance evaluation after the 2015 season ended. They advised against rehiring him. Kennedy has not returned to the field since. 

Read more at National Catholic Register

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