The case of high school football coach Joe Kennedy is like one of those wild games with one turnover after another. For the second time, the U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether to hear his case.
A high school coach at Bremerton School District in Washington State, Kennedy had the habit of taking a knee on the 50-yard line of the field after every game. He did so not to make a political statement, but to engage in a few seconds of silent prayer.
Kennedy was fired in 2015 for repeatedly violating an order by the school not to pray. This case came to be seen as the razor’s edge of legal theory to protect the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Prior Court opinions forbid organized prayer. But Kennedy prayed by himself outdoors, after his games.
This case bounced around the courts for years. The firing of Kennedy was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kennedy’s first petition before the Supreme Court was denied in 2019. Justice Samuel Alito noted that “denial of certiorari does not signify that the Court necessarily agrees with the decision.” He also wrote that “the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”
Kennedy’s new petition will be reviewed by the high Court, this time with a new Justice – Amy Coney Barrett – who has been notably interested in the free exercise of religion throughout her career.