U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in former high school football coach's school prayer case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday grappled with the case of a former high school football coach who lost his job for praying at midfield immediately after games, a legal fight that could redefine the limits of religious liberty in public schools.

Joseph Kennedy, an assistant coach of Bremerton High School's varsity football team and head coach of the junior varsity for seven years, said he had a commitment to God to take a knee and say a brief prayer after each game right at midfield. He initially prayed alone, but as time went on he was joined by some players.

When public school officials in Bremerton, Washington, asked Kennedy to stop praying publicly, he refused. He was placed on leave, and his contract was not renewed in 2015. Kennedy sued, and with the support of conservative activists, his case wound its way to the Supreme Court.

During an oral argument that stretched nearly double the allotted hour, the justices seemed divided along ideological lines. The court's three more liberal members compared Kennedy's prayers to the hypothetical prayers of other school officials, which would not be permitted.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor also questioned whether Kennedy's prayers were indeed private, or if they were public spectacles.

"I don't know of any other religion that requires you to get at the 50-yard line, the place where postgame victory speeches are given," Sotomayor asked. "What religion requires you to do it at that spot?"

Sotomayor later asked whether there would be any difference between Kennedy's actions and that of a teacher who decides to say a prayer in class immediately after the bell has sounded, even as students are approaching with questions.

Members of the court's six-member conservative majority, meanwhile, asked questions comparing Kennedy's prayers to other, non-religious actions.

Justice Clarence Thomas asked how the school district would respond if rather than taking a knee for prayer, the coach took a knee on the field during the national anthem in "moral opposition to racism."

Justice Amy Coney Barrett questioned whether it would be viewed as coercive if Coach Kennedy ran a Christian youth group on his own time that happened to be attended by many of his players.

Many legal observers expect the high court, with its conservative majority, to rule in Kennedy's favor, even though lower courts have ruled against him. In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has tended to support religious liberty, and a victory for Kennedy could loosen restrictions on religious expression in public schools.

The court is expected to issue a decision in the case before its summer recess begins in late June.