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Catholic bishops support praying football coach in Supreme Court case

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) submitted an amicus brief Wednesday in support of Joseph Kennedy, a Christian who lost his job as a high school football coach for refusing to stop praying at the 50-yard line after games.

The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments in the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, sometime in April.

Kennedy’s case dates back to 2015 when Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, placed him on administrative leave It did not renew his contract for the following season.

Kennedy filed suit to vindicate his right “to act in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs by offering a brief, private prayer of thanksgiving at the conclusion of BHS football games,” according to his brief.

Becket, a law firm dedicated to religious liberty, filed the new brief on the USCCB’s behalf. It criticized school officials for saying Kennedy’s actions violated the U.S. Constitution.

“The Constitution exists to protect public expressions of faith, not to stop Americans from praying in public,” Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, stressed in a press release on March 2. “The idea that high school football players can handle a tough game, but not the sight of someone kneeling in prayer at the end of the night, is ridiculous.”

“If there’s one thing more American than football, it’s religious freedom,” Windham added. “We hope the Supreme Court confirms what everyone with common sense knows: when a Christian coach kneels in prayer, or a Sikh schoolteacher wears a kirpan, or a Muslim principal fasts for Ramadan, they are expressing their faith, not establishing a religion.”

The Bremerton School District’s brief complains that Kennedy prayed “while on duty” and claimed that the practice “could be coercive.” The district claimed that it tried to “accommodate” Kennedy by suggesting, among other things, that he pray in the press box away from the rest of the team.

The case centers on two questions: “(1) Whether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and (2) whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.”

In the brief filed March 2, the USCCB states its interest in the “protection of the First Amendment rights of religious organizations and their adherents, and the proper development of this Court’s jurisprudence in that regard.”

“Respect for diverse religious exercise, including religious exercise by public employees, is in the best of our national traditions and ought to be celebrated, not punished,” the brief reads.

The brief reviews history and Supreme Court precedent to make the case that forms of religious expression — like Kennedy’s — are protected by the Constitution.

“The versions of endorsement and coercion that have been used to justify the school district’s actions here would exclude many religious people from public employment,” the brief warns. “Americans of many different faiths — including many government employees — pray during the workday, follow religious grooming requirements, or wear religious emblems.”

“Any such activities might make someone who encounters them feel discomfort, or provide the basis for a vague notion of government endorsement,” the brief adds. “But a proper Establishment Clause analysis, one based upon historical practices and understandings, does not lead to this result.”

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