As fired coach’s case heads to Supreme Court, broad coalition says it was his students who were the victims, not the coach – Baptist News Global


A broad coalition comprising athletes, former NFL players, civil rights advocates, members of Congress and religious groups filed amicus briefs with the United States Supreme Court in support of a Washington school district that placed a high school football coach on administrative leave in 2015 for leading postgame prayer sessions that some students called coercive.

Joseph Kennedy later sued, claiming his religious freedom had been violated by the Bremerton School District. But the players were the real victims, said Richard Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school district in the case.

Richard Katskee

“It’s not government versus religion, it’s: does the government protect the religious freedom of those it serves? These are the students and their families. Or can the employee override their own preferences and be able to force that on the students? Katskee said during an April 1 virtual press briefing to announce the coalition supporting the district.

As Katskee described the problem “as simple as it gets” compared to decades of constitutional precedent against school officials imposing religious beliefs on students, the Supreme Court nevertheless agreed in January to hear the case for the second time.

Up to this point, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was consistently decided in favor of the school system and reached the Supreme Court for the first time in 2019 on Coach’s appeal of lower court rulings. But in rejecting that appeal, four conservative justices called previous rulings ‘troubling’ and suggested the plaintiff’s claims ‘may warrant reconsideration in the future’. The case returned to the lower courts to determine whether legitimate religious expression prompted the District’s action against Kennedy.

A 2021 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled again in favor of the district, leading to another Kennedy appeal and, subsequently, a spot on the role of the Supreme Court. Judges are due to hear arguments in the case on April 25.

While the litigation made Kennedy a hero of religious conservatives who see him as a champion of religious freedom, a growing number of individuals and organizations have been alarmed that his case has survived as long as it has and that some judges may be willing to question the basis of constitutional law that has long prohibited public servants, including teachers and coaches, from imposing their faith on students.

Rachel Laser

“Let me underscore that religious denominations and religious leaders from different walks of life have announced their solidarity with us in this matter,” U.S. President Rachel Laser said during the briefing. “So don’t believe the other side when they claim the school district is somehow against religion. Please also note that to our knowledge, the only Bremerton clergy who have weighed in with the court in this case are on the side of student religious freedom.

Amicus briefs filed by these individuals and organisations, which include Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, support the argument Katskee will make in the High Court that pupils shouldn’t have to ‘pray to play’ or otherwise participate in a school activity, says Laser. “To allow this would erode a fundamental principle of our democracy and would be a radical departure from decades of established law.”

One of the groups lays the memoirs of friends of the court were the Joint Baptist Committee for Religious Liberty. His general counsel, Holly Hollman, said fundamental constitutional issues, including the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, are at stake in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

Holly Holman

“For us, this case is very important because it has the potential to reaffirm or seriously damage what has long been undisputed, namely that the constitutional protection of religious freedom in public schools means that teachers, coaches and administrators do not lead students in religious exercises or otherwise use their governmental positions to promote or disparage religion”.

The argument is not that religion is forbidden to school employees, but that students’ religious freedom should never be threatened in order to receive an education or participate in sports or other extracurricular activities, a- she declared. “It simply means that the government itself does not take a position on religious issues or interfere with students’ religious choices, and it means that government employees act in their official capacity.”

The brief filed by BJC notes that all three branches of government have recognized a constitutional distinction between the discourse of students and that of school officials, namely that teachers, coaches and administrators are not simply private citizens who are found on school grounds , said Hollman. “They are people of influence, power and authority; government agents acting and responsible for protecting the religious freedom of students”.

She added that case law dating back to the 1960s has “made it very clear that the school itself should not sponsor religious exercise and interfere with students’ religious freedom.”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers punter Frank Lambert followed with a description of the coercive power coaches have over athletes and how the fear of losing playing time could cause them to follow a coach’s religious practices.

“The players are presented with a dilemma. First, if I don’t participate, I risk demonstrating that I may not be a team player. Or, if I go, I may be violating my own religious beliefs.

Kennedy has claimed that his faith compels him to pray publicly after games. But it may run counter to some traditions that require prayers to be said in private, Lambert added. “Players and coaches pray all the time, before during and after a game. The difference is that these are private prayers, prayers that are phrased in any way and whatever the belief of the individual. This is a big difference from praying in a meeting that is coerced by an authority figure.

Dan Mach

Kennedy presented himself as a victim in a religious liberty case, said Dan Mach, director of the freedom of religion and belief program for the American Civil Liberties Union.

“It is indeed such a case,” he said. “But the victims are the public school students – his players – who have been repeatedly placed in the position of joining his midfield prayers or risk being picked as a team underdog.”

Mach noted that the school district gave Kennedy numerous warnings and opportunities to say his prayers in a private setting, but he refused.

“The record here shows that several players actually felt pressure to join the prayer circle against their will just to avoid falling out of favor with their coach. No high school athlete wants to jeopardize their playing time by getting on their coach’s bad side.

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