The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case of a former Bremerton High School assistant football coach who alleged he was fired in 2015 for refusing to stop praying on the field following games, attorneys on both sides of the issue said Friday.

The high court, with what’s been described as a 6-3 “super majority” of conservative justices, agreed to hear the case brought by Joe Kennedy in the highly politicized conflict.

District officials in 2015 had told Kennedy to stop praying on the field at the 50-yard line, which Kennedy refused. His contract to coach was not renewed the next season.

The case made Kennedy a cause celebre, for both religious conservatives saying they were protecting the rights of religious people as well as opponents who contended that allowing the prayers violates the separation between church and state. At one Bremerton Knights football game in 2015, a local Satanic Temple demonstrated outside the Memorial Stadium gates after requesting time on the field.

It’s unclear when the court will hear the case, but justices could hear oral argument before the end of April.

“No teacher or coach should lose their job for simply expressing their faith while in public,” Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty, wrote in a statement to the Kitsap Sun. The group has been representing Kennedy in the lawsuit. “By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment.”

The school district and its attorneys also issued a statement Friday on the court’s decision to review the case that has been churning through lower federal courts.

“No child attending public school should have to pray to play school sports,” Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser said in a statement. “No student should ever be made to feel excluded – whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.”

Laser added in the statement: “The lower courts have repeatedly ruled in the school district’s favor, and the Supreme Court should likewise recognize that the Bremerton School District did the right thing to protect the religious freedom, and ultimately the safety, of children.”

In another statement from First Liberty, Kennedy praised the decision to hear his case.

“Six years away from the football field has been far too long,” Kennedy said in the prepared statement. “I am extremely grateful that the Supreme Court is going to hear my case and pray that I will soon be able to be back on the field coaching the game and players I love.”

In 2019 the court declined to review the case, but allowed the lower courts to continue to develop the factual record, First Liberty wrote in a statement, saying Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh signaled the court would be open to hearing the case at a future time.

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