A general view of the Supreme Court building at the start of the court's new term in Washington, U.S. October 4, 2021.
A general view of the Supreme Court building at the start of the court's new term in Washington, U.S. October 4, 2021. Reuters / JONATHAN ERNST

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday weighed the religious rights of government employees as it considered an appeal by a Christian former public high school football coach in Washington state who was suspended from his job for refusing to stop leading prayers with players on the field after games.

The justices were hearing oral arguments in the case pitting the religious rights of individual workers against the Constitution's prohibition on the government endorsing a particular religion. The court's 6-3 conservative majority has taken a broad view of religious liberty in numerous cases.

Joseph Kennedy, who served as a part-time assistant football coach in the city of Bremerton, is appealing a lower court's ruling that rejected his claims that the school district's decision to suspend him violated his religious exercise and free speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

At issue is whether, as a public employee, Kennedy's prayers and Christian-infused speeches alongside players amounted to governmental speech, which can be regulated under Supreme Court precedents, or a private act separate from his official duties, which the First Amendment would protect.

Liberal justices questioned Paul Clement, the lawyer representing Kennedy, about what kind of conduct by school employees, including teachers, is part of their job duties, and can therefore be regulated, and what can be viewed as private speech.

Justice Elena Kagan indicated that what Kennedy is asking for runs up against Supreme Court precedents, which have said schools can discipline teachers for activity that "puts a kind of undue pressure, a kind of coercion on students to participate in religious activities when they may not wish to."

Even if it is clear a teacher is not speaking on behalf of the school district, coercion could be present, Kagan added.

"He's the one who's going to give me an 'A' or not," Kagan said, speaking generally of teachers.

Liberal justices also questioned why Kennedy needed to draw attention to his prayer by doing it on the field right after a game and later seeking publicity over the controversy.

Clement said there was no evidence any students were coerced and that the school district was concerned only about being seen to endorse a particular religion.

The school district's lawyers have said Kennedy's legal team has distorted what actually happened, weaving a "breathless tale of authoritarian government forbidding private religious expression." Kennedy is represented by First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty group.

The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled against Kennedy, finding that local officials would have violated the First Amendment's ban on government establishment of religion if they let his actions continue.

Kennedy served as an assistant football coach at his alma mater, Bremerton High School, from 2008 to 2015. The district said Kennedy delivered post-game prayers to crowds of players and others for years until officials learned about the religious nature of these sessions in 2015.

The district, concerned that Kennedy's actions could be perceived as an impermissible government endorsement of religion, notified him to stop the prayers while on duty, offering other private locations in the school as alternatives.

Kennedy initially appeared to comply, the district said, but later refused and made media appearances publicizing the dispute, attracting national attention. After repeatedly defying school officials' demands, he was placed on paid leave from his seasonal contract and did not re-apply as a coach for the subsequent season.

Kennedy's lawyers assert that he "lost his job" because of his actions, suing in federal court in 2016. Kennedy sought a court order to be reinstated as a coach, accusing officials of religious discrimination and violations of his free speech. Officials pointed out in court papers that Kennedy no longer lives in the school district and has moved to Florida, although he has said he would return if he got his job back.

The Supreme Court in recent years has expanded individual religious rights while also reducing the separation between church and state.

The justices are set to rule by the end of June on a challenge by two Christian families to a Maine state tuition assistance program that excludes private schools that promote religious beliefs. The court's conservatives during arguments in the case in December signaled support for the families.