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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

FFRF files amicus brief before Supreme Court in coach prayer case

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, joined by a coalition of secular organizations, has filed a compelling amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of a praying football coach who has achieved national notoriety. 

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had last year ruled in favor of Washington’s Bremerton School District, which did not renew Coach Joe Kennedy’s contract after he defied reasonable requests to stop praying with students on the 50-yard line right after games. Kennedy had been singled out for praise by then-President Trump, including in a speech from the Oval Office on Religious Freedom Day, and has been a darling of Christian nationalist organizations and extremist members of Congress. 

Joining FFRF on the brief are other national organizations that represent nonreligious Americans, including the Center For Inquiry, the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America.

The Supreme Court mystifyingly agreed to hear the case, which FFRF is arguing is moot, mandating that the court dismiss the case. After losing in the district court, Kennedy sold his home in Washington and moved approximately 2,800 miles to Pensacola, Fla., FFRF explains. Kennedy and his wife are no longer employed in Washington. The assistant football coach position at Bremerton High School is a year-round commitment that pays just $5,304. These changed circumstances are problematic for Kennedy because a Florida resident cannot sue a Washington school district over its policies. 

“Under the court’s precedents, the case is moot,” states the brief. “This is reinforced by the principle that a plaintiff who removes himself from the threat of allegedly unconstitutional policies has mooted his claims for prospective relief.” 

After documenting many instances in which atheist and non-Christian plaintiffs have faced procedural hurdles when seeking judicial relief, FFRF asserts that the Supreme Court must apply jurisdictional doctrines uniformly, otherwise it manipulates its jurisdiction in order to benefit preferred litigants.

“If the court asserts it has jurisdiction to decide such cases, it must apply its jurisdiction uniformly to all litigants, and not only to cases involving preferred litigants,” says the brief. “A review of the court’s cases involving religion highlights the need for the court to adopt an even-handed approach to jurisdiction.”

And if the court is inclined to review the merits of this case, it must take into account the harm caused to students who are nonreligious or who are religious minorities when coaches instigate prayer, FFRF stresses. The unique features of the coach-student relationship coerce students to participate in coach-led prayers. This type of religious activity, as FFRF demonstrates with many cogent examples, has harmed students in numerous respects, including by marginalizing nonreligious students and making them susceptible to attacks from other students and members of the community. 

Plus, school athletic teams foster an atmosphere of both communal activity among players and also allegiance to the coach. These features, combined with the social pressures exerted when an authority figure engages in religious practices, coerce non-Christian students to participate in Christian prayers. 

Coach Kennedy’s religious activity on the 50-yard line was a team activity. He intended to continue to pray with students on the field, as was his prior practice. Kennedy’s post-game prayers were anything but private. They were intended to be team prayers, FFRF emphasizes. This is problematic for students who would otherwise choose not to participate. 

Because this case is moot, the Supreme Court should dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction, FFRF concludes. Alternatively, as “it is improper and a gross violation of freedom of conscience to coerce or even encourage student athletes to pray in order to play,” FFRF urges the high court to affirm the ruling of the 9th Circuit against Coach Kennedy.

FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott is the lead drafter and counsel of record for the brief.

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