Lawyers for the Washington state school district who fired an associate football coach who continued to pray on the 50-yard line after games after being ordered to quit said Friday the Supreme Court should reject the coach’s appeal because he pressured the students on the team to pray. with him.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State also said a “broad and diverse coalition of organizations and individuals” are concerned that student-athletes may be pressured to join in prayers, even though school officials found no evidence of such pressure when they put coach Joseph Kennedy on paid administrative leave in 2015 and banned him from being on the field during or after games .
“The facts of this case are on our side, the laws of this country are on our side,” Rachel Laser, president of Americans United, said in a video news conference on Friday. Class attorneys are senior attorneys for the school district of Bremerton, Washington. “The separation of church and state means no one should have to sacrifice their religious freedom to be on the team.”
The Supreme Court is due to hear oral arguments in the case on April 25.
Attorney Holly Hollman of the Baptist Joint Committee — an advocacy coalition that does not include the Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination — said fundamental issues are at stake.
“This case is very significant because it has the potential to reaffirm or seriously damage what has long been undisputed, which is that constitutional protection of religious freedom in public schools means that teachers, coaches and administrators do not run students in religious exercises or otherwise use their government positions to advance or denigrate religion”.
And Frank Lambert, former Pittsburgh Steelers punter and professor of history emeritus at Purdue University, said coaches hold the power over their players: “For players, coaches hold a lot of power, especially in high school. , players not only want to play on the high school team, they’re eager to get to the next level,” he said.
“Imagine if you want, the players on this team – they are 15, 16, 17 year olds – they look up to the coach,” he said. “‘If I don’t participate, I risk not being a ‘team player,'” Lambert added, suggesting what a student-athlete might be thinking.
US attorney Richard B. Katskee, who is set to argue Bremerton District’s case in the high court, admitted the district had no evidence that Mr Kennedy compelled a team member football to participate in a prayer or that he had penalized the athletes who did not participate.
“There’s no evidence he ever said, ‘If you don’t participate in prayers, you won’t get game time, or I’ll kick you out of the team’ or any of those things. And it’s true, we have no reason to think that’s what was happening,” Mr. Katskee said.
But he said the lack of students praying independently following Mr Kennedy’s dismissal suggests there was a ‘coercive environment’.
Football players, he said, “chose not to do that on the field, except when Kennedy created the expectation that they would do that.”
Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at the First Liberty Institute, a public interest law firm representing Mr Kennedy, said the Bremerton District argument would go well beyond the 50 line. meters if he succeeded.
“If Americans United and Bremerton School District are allowed to prohibit ‘demonstrative religious activity’ by their employees on campus, then teachers cannot say grace over lunch in full view of students in the cafeteria, Catholic teachers cannot not wear a crucifix while teaching, Jewish teachers must remove their yarmulke before entering in view of students on campus, and a Muslim teacher must remove their hijab and leave it in the car to keep their job,” Mr. Dys told The Washington Times.
He argued that the school system and Americans United “are as incorrect on the law as they are on the facts. According to [the Bremerton district’s] superintendent, this is a case concerning the “right of a coach to conduct personal and private prayer…on the 50-yard line” and [the district’s] his own investigation found “no evidence that students were directly coerced into praying with Kennedy”.
Friday’s press conference came on the heels of several amicus curiae filings this week that support the school district’s position. “The diversity of this coalition demonstrates widespread approval of the fundamental constitutional principle of separation of church and state. The facts of the case, the laws of our country, and the majority of Americans are on the side of protecting students’ religious freedom,” Ms. Laser said.
Mr. Dys replied: “More than 35 amicus briefs filed by hundreds of individuals, scholars, community leaders, members of Congress and organizations across the country expressed their support for the one thing. Kennedy ever sought: the ability to pray quietly to himself at the 50-yard line after the games he coached. Forbidding a coach to pray quietly on his own, simply because he can be seen by the public, is wrong and violates the Constitution. No American should have to choose between his faith and the job he loves.