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U.S. Supreme Court hears case of high school coach fired for leading post-game prayers

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on the highly contested case of a high school football coach who sued after he was fired for gathering his players, and sometimes players from opposing teams, to pray on the 50-yard line after games. Both sides are invoking the cause of religious freedom.

Joseph Kennedy sued the Bremerton School District, outside of Seattle, arguing that the district violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech in not renewing his job as junior varsity coach.  The district’s position was that in allowing prayer, it could be sued, in turn, for violating the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which bans government, including schools from endorsing religion, since Kennedy was a school employee.

Kennedy appealed to the Supreme Court after a federal district court and a divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit sided with the district.

Most of the questioning  Monday focused on whether team players could have felt coerced to participate in prayers, with lawyers for both sides disagreeing on facts. Kennedy’s lawyers stressed that Kennedy held voluntary, quiet prayers. The school submitted videos of a homecoming pandemonium in which a state legislator and parents ran across the field, running into members of the marching band, to participate in a massive post-game prayer.

After listening to the questioning Monday, New York Times reporter Adam Lipatak wrote that the conservative majority on the court appeared to be searching for a narrow way to rule in Kennedy’s favor. For an analysis of the case by SCOTUSBlog, go here.

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