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High school football coach who led prayers on the field will get his job back

Joseph Kennedy, seen here taking a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last spring, will return to coach at Bremerton High School. His practice of praying on the field sparked a court case over accommodating religious expression in public schools.
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Joseph Kennedy, seen here taking a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last spring, will return to coach at Bremerton High School. His practice of praying on the field sparked a court case over accommodating religious expression in public schools.

The coach's insistence on praying on football fields after games cost him his spot on the sideline — and resulted in a Supreme Court victory on religious freedom grounds. Now Joseph Kennedy will return to the position he lost in 2015.

Kennedy will be "reinstated to his previous position as assistant coach of the Bremerton High School football team on or before March 15, 2023," according to a federal court filing from his attorneys and the school district in Bremerton, Wash.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy's favor in June, saying the school district had gone too far in pursuing its goal of eliminating any perception that it was endorsing religion. The decision overruled a lower court that had held the school was justified in telling the coach to stop praying with players on the field.

The contentious case is still not quite closed

The new court filing is a joint stipulation — a document that District Judge Robert S. Lasnik ordered the two sides to create as a way to bring Kennedy's long-running legal battle to a close. Lawyers for Kennedy and the school district submitted the stipulation just ahead of a 60-day deadline Lasnik set on Aug. 26.

But there's more work to be done, because in two crucial areas — one regarding the relief Kennedy is entitled to, and another having to do with the language of the final injunction — the document says the two sides "disagree on the specific wording." They plan to submit their own versions of the court's proposed order by Nov. 8.

The joint stipulation says the district may require Kennedy to "complete all necessary hiring forms and certifications" before he oversees players. It also bars the school district from retaliating against Kennedy.

A looming price tag is another concern for the school district, as the stipulation notes Kennedy can claim "reasonable attorneys' fees and costs" in his case against Bremerton, a small city that sits across Puget Sound from Seattle.

The cost could be steep, for a case that has been working its way through the courts for more than six years. On the document, the school district is represented by fewer lawyers — two — than Kennedy is by law firms — five, from Washington state, Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

The coach's case was taken up by conservatives

In 2015, Kennedy quickly became an example of what right-wing conservatives said was an assault on religious freedom in America. Months after he was placed on paid leave for refusing to stop praying at games, Kennedy appeared at a rally for Sen. Ted Cruz, who was then hoping to be the Republicans' presidential nominee.

"They told me that I was not allowed to pray with the kids, and if I wanted to pray, I had to wait 'til every single person has changed and left. And I had to go and pray out on the 50 all alone," he said at the event.

Cruz then asked, "What kind of country have we become when kneeling in prayer is treated as an act of civil disobedience?"

(If you're wondering: quarterback Colin Kaepernick famously kneeled in protest on an NFL football field for the first time the following September.)

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.