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Atheists to Supreme Court: Allowing Coach’s 50-Yard Line Prayers Threatens Free Speech Rights of All Americans

Washington, D.C.—Today, the religious equality watchdog American Atheists filed an amicus brief in Kennedy v. Bremerton, a Supreme Court case that could require public schools to allow teachers, staff, and coaches to engage in coercive prayers with students.

At issue in this case is the conduct of Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington who repeatedly violated the religious freedom of his players by pressuring them to join his public prayers at the 50-yard line at their public school football games. The Bremerton School District made multiple offers to accommodate Kennedy’s request for time and space for personal prayers on the job, but he refused those offers, demanding that he be allowed to pray at the center of the football field, immediately after the final whistle, with students.

Despite lower courts repeatedly holding that Kennedy’s actions violated the rights of Bremerton students — and multiple students reporting that they felt coerced and pressured to participate for fear of losing playing time — Kennedy’s lawyers have, according to a Ninth Circuit Court judge, spun a “deceitful narrative” about the facts of this case.

“Contrary to Kennedy and his religious extremist allies’ claims, this case has nothing to do with his rights,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “The core issue here is whether student athletes at public schools should have to endure coercive prayers from their teachers and coaches for fear of losing out on playing time.”

According to the amicus brief filed by American Atheists today, Kennedy is asking the Supreme Court to create a new “right” from whole cloth, one that would require the government to give almost complete deference to the speech of employees on the job if that speech is rooted in their religious beliefs. Such a ruling would upend decades of Supreme Court precedent by forcing government agencies to engage in viewpoint discrimination and subjecting nonreligious speech to greater restrictions than religious speech.

“It’s plainly obvious that the principle Kennedy is advocating for is completely unworkable and would present a grave threat to the rights of all Americans,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel at American Atheists and the author of the brief. “Teachers could pray aloud in their classroom while students quietly study. Poll workers could engage in religious speech while managing an election.”

“Government would have no choice but to scrutinize whether anyone engaging in speech is motivated by a sincerely held religious belief in order to determine whether the normal rules apply to them,” added Blackwell.

According to research from American Atheists, nonreligious young people who live in very religious areas face heightened levels of discrimination in education. Providing special protections exclusively for religious speech would only increase stigmatization of nonreligious and religious minority students.

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