WASHINGTON DC – A group of eight current and former NFL players, including Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy.
The players’ court friend’s file supports Kennedy, who was fired by the Bremerton School District in 2015 for praying on the field after games. The case has made its way to the Supreme Court and is expected to be heard this spring.
Foles, Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and former players Joe DeLamielleure, Phil Olsen, Christian Ponder, Drew Stanton, Harry Swayne and Jack Youngblood were the players attached to the case.
“Each amicus attended and played football at at least one public high school or university before turning professional,” the memoir states. “Each amicus also voluntarily exercised their constitutional right to pray before, during and after the games they competed in on behalf of these schools – sometimes alone, sometimes with other players and sometimes with coaches. Each amicus therefore has the first – hands-on experience of the environment this case occurred in. And each amicus can witness first-hand the power of prayer – generating gratitude for the opportunity to play, promoting high-minded ideals sporting, in protecting the safety of those who go onto the field, in bringing together political and racial differences between players, and finally in the glorification of God.
“For all of these reasons, the amici support protecting the free speech rights of public school coaches like Joe Kennedy.”
After the games were over and after players and coaches from both teams met in midfield to shake hands, Kennedy would kneel and offer a quiet or silent prayer.
However, his practice has evolved. Students came to join him, and he eventually began giving motivational speeches that often included religious content and a short prayer.
The school district says when it learned what Kennedy was doing, it tried to accommodate him, asking him to pray separately from the students. But the district says Kennedy ultimately refused to change his practice, was placed on paid leave and sued. The lower courts sided with the school district.
In 2016, a U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma refused to issue a preliminary injunction sought by Kennedy. He was asking the court that the school district rehire him immediately.
In 2017, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Kennedy took advantage of his position when he prayed on the field after games, and he was not entitled to immediately get his job back.
In 2019, the United States Supreme Court declined to reconsider the case. Four conservative judges at the time expressed interest in the case and the legal issues it raises. The lower courts rejected Kennedy’s claim that the school district violated his free speech rights by placing him on paid leave after he continued to pray in midfield after games.
In 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in favor of the Bremerton School District’s motion for summary judgment. Kennedy’s lawyers appealed.
In a statement released in January after the court agreed to hear the case, Kelly Shackelford, the director of the First Liberty Institute, which represents Kennedy, said, “No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing his faith in public.”
“By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including public prayer, without fear of punishment,” Shackelford said.
But the leader of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who represents the school district, said he had complied with the law, calling Kennedy’s actions “coercive prayers.”
“This case is not about a school employee praying silently during a private religious devotion. Rather, it is about protecting impressionable students who felt pressured by their coach to repeatedly participate in public prayer. , and a public school district that has done well for its students and families,” Rachel Laser said in a statement.
The case attracted wide national attention, including when former President Donald Trump introduced Kennedy at a campaign event in Virginia in October 2016.
Student leaders also invited Seattle Satanists to attend a game in what they described as an effort to get the school district to clarify its policy.
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