When Joe Kennedy was offered a job as a football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, he dropped to his knees and prayed. He wanted to know whether God supported the career move and how accepting the position would affect his faith.

“It was like God came down and whacked me. ... I heard my calling right there on the floor,” he said.

Kennedy emerged from that moment confident that God wanted him not only to coach but to continue to pray. From 2008 to 2015, he’d bow his head at the 50-yard line after each game, thanking God for his work on the field.

“I was going to give God the glory after every game, win or lose,” he said.

Over time, Kennedy’s prayer habit caught on with many of his players and even some members of opposing teams. What once was a quiet, individual practice became a shared experience akin to the prayer circles that form after NFL games.

During the 2015 football season, Kennedy’s eighth as an assistant varsity coach and head coach for the JV team, school leadership intervened. They told Kennedy that public schools couldn’t appear to endorse religion and asked him to return to his original practice of praying alone.

At first, Kennedy complied, but he also consulted with attorneys. Soon, the coach and school district were engaged in a full-fledged legal battle, a battle that remains unsettled, seven years on.

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Kennedy insists the school district has misread his intentions. His desire was — and is — to quietly thank God at the 50-yard line, he said, not to derail the football program or spark a culture war.

“The thought of somebody being fired in America for demonstrating their faith — that blows my mind,” he said.

But if you ask the school district and its supporters what’s mind-blowing about the case, they have a very different assessment to share. What’s shocking is the coach thinks his religious interests matter more than the district’s duty to protect students and keep religious spectacles off the football field, said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents Bremerton School District in the case.

“Parents should be in charge of their kids’ religious beliefs and learning, not the state and not public schools,” she said.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will consider these competing claims and related questions about the rights of school employees and the scope of the establishment clause. Although legal experts don’t agree on how the case should turn out, they share the sense that it could lead to the court’s most significant religious freedom ruling this term.

Previous school prayer rulings

Legal experts generally date the origin of modern conflict over school prayer to the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court issued two major prayer rulings in back-to-back years.

First, the justices ruled 6-1 in 1962 that New York state public schools could not begin school days with a state-composed prayer, even if participation was voluntary and the prayer was nondenominational. The court said the practice violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause, since it amounted to government-sponsored religious instruction.

The next year, justices built upon that precedent in a case that centered on mandatory Bible readings. In an 8-1 decision, the court banned the readings, determining that public schools couldn’t mandate participation in a religious activity.

Neither ruling called for an outright prohibition on prayer in public schools, but in the decades since they were handed down, they’ve often been described that way by a vocal faction of religious conservatives, according to Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion at George Washington University. The way these believers see it, the rulings flew in the face of American tradition, denying the country’s Judeo-Christian soul.

“There’s been this perception that religion in America is under attack by forces of secularism,” he said.

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, stands outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on April 5, 2022. The court has agreed to hear a case he brought against the Bremerton School District that put him on leave after he refused to cease his practice of kneeling on the field for a post-game prayer. | T.J. Kirkpatrick, for the Deseret News

That perception continued to grow in the 1990s and 2000s, when the Supreme Court issued two more rulings against prayer in schools. The justices said prayers should not be given at graduation ceremonies or over the loud speaker at sporting events, arguing that such school-initiated behavior coerces students to participate in religious activities and therefore violates the establishment clause.

“The majority of the court said it’s coercion when kids feel subtle pressure to be respectful” and listen to the prayers, said Richard Garnett, a professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame.

These and other rulings point to what legal experts see as the court’s key concerns in establishment clause cases: avoiding government endorsement of a particular religion, government sponsorship of religious activities and government-led creation of a coercive environment.

“Schools are not supposed to be in the religion business,” Tuttle said. “Religious education belongs to families and their religious communities. It does not belong to public schools.”

Kennedy v. Bremerton

Bremerton school officials emphasized these ideas when they reached out to Kennedy in 2015. The school was concerned about appearing to sanction an on-field, group prayer and worried about how Kennedy’s actions were affecting the students on his team, Laser said.

“The school asked him to stop, but also told him that they would be happy to work with him to find a way to honor his religious beliefs without pressuring students to join him,” she said.

At first, both sides seemed open to finding a solution, but the accommodation process quickly went off the rails. Kennedy says school officials kept “moving the goalposts,” while officials say Kennedy was committed to causing a scene.

In Oct. 2015, the school placed the coach on paid administrative leave, which lasted until his contract ended. Kennedy says he lost his job because of the conflict; school officials say he never reapplied.

Disagreements about what exactly happened and when have persisted for the past seven years. It won’t be surprising if, during Monday’s oral arguments, the Supreme Court dedicates substantial time to debating the basic details of the case, Tuttle said.

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As Laser noted, the school believes Kennedy’s prayers violated the establishment clause in multiple ways. Officials worry that students felt pressured to take part and say a reasonable observer would believe Kennedy was acting as a school employee, not a private individual.

“The 50-yard line is a place that is of maximum visibility to anyone in the stands. ... He’s praying in a place that he has privileged access to because of his role on the team,” said Tuttle, who worked on an amicus brief in support of the school’s position.

Kennedy’s team, on the other hand, says the school has misapplied past rulings and mischaracterized the coach’s prayers. Legal precedent doesn’t prevent a school employee from saying a quick, private prayer and that’s what Kennedy’s been focused on doing all along, said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, the coach’s law firm.

“He could kneel down and tie his shoe and he’d be in the same posture for the same amount of time making the same amount of noise. The only reason anyone knows ... he’s praying is that there’s been a case about it,” he said.

Garnett, who worked on a brief in favor of the coach, also believes the prayers don’t violate the establishment clause. Past rulings drew a distinction between school-sponsored religious activity and private religious expression that takes place at school, he said.

“My view is that it shouldn’t matter whether these religious expressions take place in private or in public. The question is whether they involve some sort of official government activity or coercion,” Garnett said.

At the district and circuit level, judges took the district’s side, ruling that Kennedy’s prayers amounted to more than an individual, private act. Prayers at the center of the field with students present raise significant establishment clause concerns, wrote Judge Milan Smith, who serves on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in March 2021.

“At issue in this case is not, as Kennedy attempts to gloss it, a personal and private exercise of faith. At issue was — in every sense of the word — a demonstration, and, because Kennedy demanded that it take place immediately after the final whistle, it was a demonstration necessarily directed at students and the attending public,” he said.

After a string of losses in the lower courts, Kennedy’s team appealed to the Supreme Court. In January, the justices agreed to hear the case and sort out when schools can limit employee speech and whether Kennedy violated the establishment clause.

Future of prayer in schools

In light of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority and its general friendliness to religious freedom claims, most court watchers expect the coach to win. The key question, then, is how the justices will explain their decision and what that explanation will mean for future debates.

Tuttle, among others, worries the eventual ruling will undermine the many school prayer decisions issued over the past 60 years. If the justices prioritize protecting Kennedy’s religious exercise and free speech rights, they’ll be handing a big win to those who want to see more prayer and more religion in public schools, he said.

“I’m concerned he’ll win on grounds that effectively license uncontrolled teacher engagement with religious activity in schools,” Tuttle said.

Similarly, Laser believes a ruling for the coach could harm students across the country. We should all be rooting for classrooms — and school football fields — to remain a religiously neutral space, she said.

In contrast, Garnett said the case is unlikely to disrupt the status quo. The court can rule for Kennedy without undoing past bans on school-sponsored, state-composed prayer, he said.

“Some of the commentary (on this case) is exaggerating the implications a bit,” he said. “It assumes that, in the absence of a federal judge telling you what you can and can’t do, people will automatically do maximally disruptive things. I don’t think that’s the world we live in.”

It’s possible that a Kennedy victory could actually lead to clearer and better policies on school prayer, Garnett added. As it stands, Bremerton School District is far from the only district struggling with establishment clause debates.

“School officials and government officials sometimes err on the side of censorship because they worry they’ll be held accountable on some establishment clause thing,” he said.

For his part, Kennedy is looking forward to a long-awaited resolution. He wants the opportunity to coach for Bremerton again and to kneel at the 50-yard line to pray.

“I’m either thanking God or asking for forgiveness. That’s the story of my life,” he said.