A high-profile case before the Supreme Court ended Monday with justices appearing to side with a Washington state football coach who was punished for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games.
Former Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy was fired because he would not abandon his post-game prayer. Kennedy then launched a six-year fight that reached the nation’s highest court on Monday.
“I fought and defended the Constitution, and the thought of leaving the field of battle where the guys just played and having to go and hide my faith because it was uncomfortable to somebody — that’s just not America,” the Marine veteran said, according to NPR.
On Monday, attorneys for the two sides argued their case before the court, with appointments to the court made by former President Donald Trump appearing to have a major influence on how the court might rule. Trump appointed Justices Neal Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett to the court, giving conservatives a majority.
When the dust settled Monday, The New York Times summarized the arguments by writing that “Members of the court’s conservative majority indicated that the coach, Joseph A. Kennedy, had a constitutional right to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line after games.”
Noting the significance of the case, the Washington Post wrote, “The court’s conservative majority seemed sympathetic to the coach while its three liberals seemed more skeptical. The outcome could strengthen the acceptability of some religious practices in the public school setting.”
Kavanaugh indicated that students were not forced to pray.
“This wasn’t, you know, ‘Huddle up, team,’” Kavanaugh said.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked whether Kennedy would have been disciplined for protesting the invasion of Ukraine or liberal policies, such as climate change or racial injustice, according to The New York Times.
Alito, joined by Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas, had staked out a position on the case in 2019, when the case came before the court but was sent back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which later ruled against Kennedy, prompting the current appeal before the Supreme Court.
“The Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public-school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Alito wrote then, prior to Barrett’s appointment.
“What is perhaps most troubling about the Ninth Circuit’s opinion is language that can be understood to mean that a coach’s duty to serve as a good role model requires the coach to refrain from any manifestation of religious faith — even when the coach is plainly not on duty,” Alito wrote.
Kelly Shackelford, President of First Liberty Institute, noted that First Liberty is supporting Kennedy.
“Banning a coach from praying, just because he can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution. No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. We are hopeful the Court will allow Coach Kennedy to once again do what he promised God he would do – kneel at the 50-yard line after a game in which he coaches to say a quiet, personal prayer of thanks,” Shackelford said, according to Clark County Today.
Not all the justices on Monday were supportive.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor questioned why Kennedy had to pray on the 50-yard line immediately after a game.
“Why there?” she asked at one point, the Post reported.
Kennedy’s lawyer, Paul Clement, said the former coach’s “religious beliefs” led him to pray there and then.
“I don’t think there’s anything unusual about that,” he said.
As noted by The Hill, the American Center for Law and Justice, led by Jay Sekulow, wants the ruling to be used to clear away any vestiges of a 1971 ruling in Lemon v. Kurtzman. The ruling set the standard for separating church and state.
“As evidenced by nearly a half century of often scathing criticism from scholars, members of this Court, and lower court judges, Lemon is poorly reasoned,” Sekulow wrote in an amicus brief. “Its foundational flaw, of course, is that it is untethered to the original meaning of the Establishment Clause. Devoid of sound doctrinal underpinnings, Lemon is elastic and unprincipled.”
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