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Supreme Court rules for coach in public school prayer case

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The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a Washington state high school football coach had the right to pray on the field immediately after games, a decision that could lead to greater acceptance of religious expressions in public schools.

The ruling was a victory for Joseph Kennedy, who alleged that the Bremerton School District had violated its religious freedom by: tell him he couldn’t pray so publicly after the games. The district said it tried to avoid the appearance that the school endorsed a religious point of view.

In recent years, a more conservative Supreme Court has tended to view actions by the government that once considered neutral and necessary to uphold the separation of church and state as hostile to religious expression.

One issue in the case was whether the coach’s decision to pray in such a prominent place, on the 50-yard line, amounted to a personal moment of thanksgiving or a public demonstration of his religious belief that his players may have felt compelled to join. to do .

Kennedy urged the Supreme Court to find that he was acting for himself, expressing his own religious views, not speaking not speaking for the school. But the school district said the soccer team students looked up to their coach and felt compelled to do what he did.

Then Bremerton’s assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured in the center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia players after kneeling and praying for him after their game against Bremerton, in Bremerton, Washington, on October 16, 2015.Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun via AP file

He became an assistant coach of the Bremerton High School varsity soccer team in 2008 and later began praying a short prayer on the field after the games ended and the players and coaches met in midfield to shake hands. The school district eventually told him to find a private place to pray.

But he refused and continued his habit of falling to one knee and praying at the 50-yard line. He later invited journalists and a state legislator to watch. The district gave him a poor performance evaluation and he did not apply to renew his contract after the 2015 football season. Kennedy sued him, alleging violations of his rights to free speech and religious freedom.

Lower federal courts said that because he chose to say his prayers in such a prominent place, he was acting as a public employee and therefore his conduct was not protected by the First Amendment. Those rulings cited previous Supreme Court rulings that when officials act in their official capacity, they speak more on behalf of the government than for themselves.

Kennedy now lives in Florida but has said that if the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, he would return to Bremerton and want to get his job as a part-time football coach back.

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