The US Supreme Court on Monday denied certiorari in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which involved a football coach at a public high school who claimed that school officials retaliated against him for engaging in prayer on the field.
The case raised the question of how public-sector employers must balance their dual obligations under the First Amendment to guarantee both the free exercise of religion and the separation of church and state. Seven groups of amici curaie, including state attorneys general and members of Congress, had urged the court to take up the case.
In a statement respecting the denial of certiorari, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that Supreme Court review was unwarranted where it was not clear what the petitioner, Joseph Kennedy, would be able to prove regarding the reason or reasons behind the school district’s decision to release him. Alito noted that in communications with Kennedy, the school district had expressed concern both that Kennedy’s behavior could be interpreted by observers as a public endorsement of religion and that while engaged in prayer, Kennedy was neglectful of his duty to supervise students. Explaining that the absence of a finding on this issue by the lower courts precluded Supreme Court review, Alito wrote that the case “may ultimately implicate important constitutional issues,” and he criticized the Ninth Circuit for what he described as its overly broad interpretation of an earlier Supreme Court case concerning a public employer’s right to regulate employee speech. Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joined the statement respecting denial.
Kennedy was employed as a football coach at a public high school in Washington state from 2008 to 2015. In his petition for certiorari, Kennedy explained that his Christian faith calls him “to pause, take a knee, and offer a silent or quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition” at the end of every game. After the school district decided not to renew his contract, Kennedy sued in federal district court, alleging violations of his rights under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He asked the court to grant an injunction ordering the school district to reinstate him as a coach and to allow him to pray on the field. Taking the view that Kennedy acted in his capacity as a public employee when he prayed on the field, the district court ruled that he was not entitled to First Amendment protection. The Ninth Circuit affirmed that holding.