David G. Savage
From the Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has agreed to hear another religious rights lawsuit from a conservative Christian, this time to decide whether a former high school football coach had the free speech right to kneel and pray after a game at the 50-yard line.
The case of Joe Kennedy, a former coach from Bremerton, Washington, has swirled in federal courts for six years, including two decisions from the 9th Circuit Court and one earlier appeal to the Supreme Court.
And all the while, the two sides were at odds over what was at issue: were his prayers a matter of private speech, or were they about promoting religion on school grounds?
His case has drawn additional attention in conservative circles, with the judges saying Friday they agreed to decide whether Kennedy’s rights were violated when school officials warned him against leading prayers on the football field.
“His lawsuit has always been about whether a public school worker has a constitutional right to a brief, silent prayer in solitude,” former Solicitor General Paul Clement said on Kennedy’s behalf. “The religious expression of hundreds of thousands of District 9 teachers is currently on the brink of extinction, and its chilling effects are being felt in other parts of the country.”
School district officials said they have no objection to Kennedy or other school employees praying in private at the school, including in the locker room before or after games. However, they objected when Kennedy attracted a growing audience for his prayers on the field at the end of each game.
Footballers and other students rushed to midfield to join him.
They also objected to what one court called the coach’s “media blitzkrieg” in which he took the dispute to local TV channels.
Kennedy was an assistant coach on a one-year contract and was suspended when he refused to comply with the district’s warning against holding prayers on the field. He was not rehired the following year, and later filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of his 1st Amendment rights to free speech and free religion.
The dispute was divided by the 9th Circuit Court. In his latest decision, Judge Milan Smith said that “Kennedy spoke like a public servant as he knelt and prayed at the 50-yard line just after games in front of students and parents.” Judges have said in the past that schools can regulate or restrict what government employees say at work, even if they are free to speak in their spare time.
But 11 judges in the 9th Circuit disagreed with the decision, setting the stage for a high court appeal.
In the spring, judges will hear arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District and will make a decision by the end of June.
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