WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Friday said it would hear an appeal from a former high school football coach who says his First Amendment rights were violated when he lost his job after kneeling at the 50-yard-line in prayer.
The lawsuit by Joseph Kennedy, a Bremerton High School coach who was placed on administrative leave in 2015, has become a cause célèbre among religious conservative groups who asserted he was denied his free speech rights as a private citizen.
Kennedy's case made it to the Supreme Court once before, in 2019, as he sought to reclaim his job while the case continued. The court denied his appeal but four of its conservative justices wrote at the time that a lower court's ruling in favor of the school was "troubling" and that Kennedy's claims "may justify review in the future."
The high court sent Kennedy back to lower courts at that time to determine if he was let go because of his religious expression or for some other reason.
More: Supreme Court refuses to consider appeal from high school football coach
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in San Francisco ruled in March that allowing Kennedy to pray - which he did in view of spectators and occasionally with players - would violate the First Amendment's prohibition on government establishing religion. The court said he acted not as a private citizen but as a public employee.
The Bremerton School District, located just outside of Seattle, told the court in early December that school officials had heard from players' parents who said their children felt compelled to participate in the prayers. School officials said that they offered Kennedy time and space to pray before and after games, such as in the press box.
"The prayer practice he wanted to continue hadn't been private at all," the school wrote. "He held more postgame prayers on the 50-yard line, with students and community members rushing the field to join him, knocking over members of the marching band."
Kennedy's attorneys say the appeals court misread the Supreme Court's signals.
"The Ninth Circuit not only doubled down on its 'troubling' government-speech holding, but reached the stunning conclusion that the school district had a constitutional duty to prohibit Kennedy's prayer - even if he offered it as a private citizen," they wrote.
The high court has generally looked favorably on religious freedom claims in recent years amid a flurry of disputes over the First Amendment's establishment clause, which prohibits the government from becoming entangled with religion, and the amendment's free exercise clause, which guarantees the right to practice religion free of government interference.
In 2014, for instance, the court upheld a centuries-old tradition of offering prayers to open government meetings, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian. In 2019, the court ruled that a Latin cross on government land outside of Washington, D.C., did not have to be moved or altered in the name of church-state separation.
The justices are set to revisit the issue when they hear arguments Jan. 18 in a case challenging the city of Boston's decision to deny access to a Christian group that wants to briefly display its flag at city hall, a request the city regularly grants for secular groups.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court to hear case of football coach who lost job after praying