Pence group backs coach at Supreme Court in school prayer case

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A religious freedom group headed by former Vice President Mike Pence is urging the Supreme Court to take up a case involving a football coach who was fired for praying on the field at the end of games.

The Pence group — Advancing American Freedom — was among about 70 organizations and individuals who joined in an amicus brief filed Monday asking the justices to hear the case of Joseph Kennedy, who was dismissed in 2015 as the coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state.

"When a public official engages in silent prayer on bended knee following the completion of one of his most important job responsibilities, that prayer is universally understood by all reasonable observers to be an act of personal thanks and devotion. It is absurd to label an act of obvious personal gratitude and humility governmental speech that is prohibited by the Constitution," the amicus brief says. "Indeed, it is commonplace in our Republic for public officials to pray aloud in front of public audiences, which has since the time of the Founding been understood to be a permissible and healthy expression of the personal faith of the speaker, rather than an impermissible endorsement of religion by the government."

The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, seems highly likely to be granted review because when the Supreme Court turned the case down in 2019 four justices signed a statement that appeared to raise doubts about the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in favor of the school district. Despite those concerns, at that time, the justices urged clarification of the record in the case on the specific issue of whether Kennedy was fired due to his brief, post-game prayers or because of a failure to supervise his players during that time.

The San Francisco-based appeals court's latest opinion, issued in March, noted that Kennedy's prayer eventually was joined by numerous members of the team, included motivational speeches, and led to at least one complaint from a parent who's son was an atheist and came to believe he would not get as much playing time if he didn't join in the post-game prayer. The 9th Circuit panel said the school's actions in terminating Kennedy were justified based on concerns that his conduct violated the Constitution's guarantee against establishment of religion.

The brief from Pence's group echoes language in Kennedy's petition filed with the Supreme Court last month blasting the appeals court's decision as "egregiously wrong."

"Americans of faith do not turn their devotion off and on like a light switch, and we must reject any attempt by the government to control private religious expression — especially those who call on their faith when answering the call to participate in public service,” Pence said in a statement Monday. “Advancing American Freedom will always stand up to unconstitutional restrictions on personal religious freedom and the free exercise of religion that are the lifeblood of our Republic.”

Other signatories to the amicus brief include the Young America's Foundation, which is headed by former Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), and a group that often backs social and religious conservatives at the high court, the Alliance Defending Freedom.

Pence's group has previously filed briefs with the high court in two other cases it is set to hear argument on in December: Mississippi's 15-week abortion ban and a case from Maine about use of state tuition subsidies at sectarian schools.

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