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Bremerton coach turns to Supreme Court for second time in lawsuit over praying at games

Coach Joe Kennedy at a Bremerton High School football game. (Bremerton Patriot)

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, asking justices to reverse a previous ruling from the 9th District Court.

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The 9th District’s ruling stated that the Bremerton School District had not violated Kennedy’s religious and free speech rights when they told him not to pray with students after games on the football field.

Kennedy first made headlines for refusing the school’s request to cease prayer on the sidelines in 2017. Ultimately, the school district decided not to renew his contract.

That led to a years-long court battle, beginning with Kennedy suing the school district in an attempt to get reinstated. After losing in district court, he filed his lawsuit with the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019. Justices declined to hear the case, ruling that while some of them did not necessarily agree with the lower court’s ruling, the case would be difficult to continue on factual grounds.

Then, in July 2021, a U.S. Court of Appeals similarly declined to re-hear the case, leaving the 9th District Court’s ruling in place.

For this latest appeal, Kennedy’s lawyers noted that four Supreme Court Justices — Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh — had indicated in 2019 that “the Court would be open to hearing the case with a fully developed record, saying in part, ‘the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.'”

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But as former Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna has previously pointed out, Kennedy may be operating on problematic legal grounds.

“Students can form Bible study groups, prayer groups, Muslim students can get together and organize prayers during the day,” McKenna told KIRO Radio in 2019. “As long as they are doing it on their own, it’s fine. It’s when staff gets involved, … as agents of the government, you get to a problem here.”

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