On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a case involving a high school football coach who was terminated over his practice of praying with his team before and after games, a hearing that may end up becoming a landmark precedent for future arguments about religion in United States schools.
Former high school football coach Joseph Kennedy was terminated from the Bremerton School District in Washington state in 2016 after it was discovered by school administrators that Kennedy had a long-standing custom of praying on the 50-yard line after games.
After a while, members of the team began joining him, though according to Kennedy he never required anyone to participate. Kennedy also allegedly led the team in prayer in the locker room prior to games.
When the school learned of Kennedy’s prayer routine, he was told he must cease praying with students or engaging in overtly religious activity while still on duty as football coach. Kennedy continued the prayers and was placed on leave.
When his contract expired he did not reapply for the coaching position. Kennedy argues that the school district violated his constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of religion.
The school district maintains Kennedy violated its terms of conduct, prohibiting “demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable” by students or members of the public, and that in engaging in the prayers while serving as a public employee, he was pressuring the team into participating in a religious act.
“This doesn’t seem like a new problem,” said Justice Stephen Breyer during the hearing. “It just seems like a line-drawing problem about the 50-yard line just after the game, when the school said, ‘Don’t do it on the 50-yard-line, do it 10 minutes later.”
The court is expected to render its ruling on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 21-418, before Summer.