Supreme Court's conservative justices appear sympathetic to coach fired for praying on high school field
Supreme Court (AFP)

The US Supreme Court's conservative justices appeared sympathetic Monday to a high school football coach who lost his job in a dispute over his right to pray on the 50-yard line.

The controversy comes with the court's 6-3 right-wing majority ruling in favor of greater religious liberty in several recent cases where opponents have been looking to affirm the principle of church-state separation.

Joe Kennedy, a coach for Bremerton High School in Washington state, began a ritual in 2008 where he would pray on the field at the final whistle.

But the school told the Christian military veteran to bring an end to the custom in 2015 after players began joining in -- arguing that he was violating its ban on staff encouraging students to pray.

He was placed on administrative leave when he defied the order and did not reapply for his job after his contract ended soon after, opting instead to sue the school district.

The Supreme Court is being asked to rule on whether the public official's prayers amounted to government speech, or private expression protected by the Constitution.

Education officials say they supported Kennedy's religious rights -- offering him private places for prayer -- but could not allow his post-game ritual, which could be perceived as the school endorsing religion.

Kennedy lost the case and a subsequent appeal in which a three-judge panel said he was "not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties."

The Supreme Court's conservative justices have already issued a statement questioning the appeals court's ruling.

So it was not seen as a surprise when they appeared doubtful that the prayers could be interpreted as government endorsement of religion, suggesting that Kennedy's official duties were over once the games had ended.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested there was a difference between what Kennedy was doing "as players are dispersing" and a coach ordering his players into a "huddle" to pray.

Justice Samuel Alito meanwhile wanted to know whether Kennedy would have been disciplined if he were kneeling to "protest the Russian invasion of Ukraine or make a statement about climate change," rather than to pray.

Liberal justices seemed swayed by the argument that Kennedy was still performing his role as an on-duty public official in the moments after the games.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor told Kennedy's attorney Paul Clement: "I have a dozen or more statements by your coach telling and admitting that his duties as coach... weren't just during the game."

A ruling is expected this summer, with the Supreme Court recently indicating its willingness to favor religious freedoms.

Last month the justices ruled 8-1 in favor of a Texas death row inmate who wanted to have his pastor pray aloud and touch him during his execution.

The court also ruled last term that Catholic adoption agencies could discriminate against same-sex foster parents.