A high-profile case involving a high school football coach will begin arguments before the court on Monday.
Coach Joseph Kennedy and his former Seattle-area school district offer dramatically different accounts of the events, making the case’s potential impact difficult to gauge, according to the Washington Post.
Beginning in 2008, Kennedy began kneeling on the football field after games and partaking in a brief prayer. Over time, players from his own team and the opposing team began to join him. Eventually, the vast majority of players would participate in the post-game prayer.
This continued without any formal complain until 2015 when the school told Kennedy to stop, claiming the act violated school policy that prohibited staff from encouraging students to engage in devotional activities.
The school also received a comment from an atheist student claiming he feared that not joining the prayer would negatively impact his playing time.
Kennedy refused to comply and was placed on administrative leave through the end of the year, when his contract expired. He then filed a lawsuit alleging the school violated his First Amendment rights for disciplining him for his private religious expression.
A federal district court sided with the school, saying his conduct was not constitutionally protected as he was acting in his capacity as a public employee. He was similarly rejected by the San Francisco-based 9th Circuit federal appeals court which ruled that the school district would be in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition on government endorsement of religion “by allowing Kennedy to pray at the conclusion of football games, in the center of the field, with students who felt pressured to join him.”
In an amicus brief, the ALCU wrote, “Public schools must welcome students of all religions and those of none. That obligation is compromised when school officials take it upon themselves to convey (whether intentionally or not) religious messages.”