WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to tackle a First Amendment dispute between a Washington State school district and a football coach fired for kneeling in prayer at the 50 yard-line after games.
The lawsuit by Joseph Kennedy, a Bremerton High School coach who was fired in 2015, had become a cause célèbre among religious conservative groups who argued that he was denied his free speech rights as a private citizen.
Four conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – wrote separately to express concerns about religious liberty but agreed the case was not ripe for review.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2017 that Kennedy acted as a public official by praying, along with willing athletes, in school attire and in full view of students and parents.
“The (federal appeals court’s) understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Alito wrote.
The case even drew the attention of presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2015, before the first votes were cast in his successful campaign for the White House. He tweeted, inaccurately at the time, about Kennedy’s suspension.
First Liberty Institute, which actually represents Kennedy in the case, vowed Tuesday to redouble its efforts in the federal district court.
“The Supreme Court seems to understand that banning all coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution,” First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford said.
For the past few decades, the Supreme Court generally has carved out protections for religious groups and individuals. In recent years, it ruled that a Missouri church could receive federal funds, private corporations could avoid federal health regulations regarding contraceptives, and a New York town could open meetings with Christian prayers.
In June, it ruled that a Colorado baker was treated unfairly after he refused on religious grounds to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. And it said a similarly defiant Washington state florist deserves another chance to challenge lower court rulings against her.
Most recently, the justices agreed to decide whether a 93-year-old memorial to World War I veterans must be removed from public land in Maryland, as lower courts ordered, because it is shaped like a cross. That case will be heard next month.
But a majority of justices, including Chief Justice John Roberts, apparently agreed with the lower court that Kennedy, a Christian who coached the football team for seven years, went too far with his public display of faith on school grounds.
“Such activity can promote disunity along religious lines and risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all,” the appeals court panel ruled last year.