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U.S. Supreme Court justices this week expressed sympathy for a white high school football coach who was fired from his job for kneeling and praying on the field following games, drawing a stark contrast to the country’s collective reaction to Colin Kaepernick‘s controversial kneeling protest before NFL games.

While not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, critics wonder what would have become of Kaepernick and his career had his plight to raise awareness about police brutality against Black people been viewed through the same empathetic filter that the Supreme Court employed on Monday, when it heard the football coach Joseph Kennedy’s case.

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District centers on Kennedy’s stated religious right to conduct a post-game prayer at the 50-yard line. But his case shares many parallels with the situation in which Kaepernick found himself after he refused to stop kneeling.

Kennedy is a staunch Christian who worked as an assistant coach for the football team at Bremerton High School in suburban Seattle from 2008 up until 2015 when he was placed on leave and his contract was not renewed for not abiding by the school district’s order for him to stop kneeling and praying on the field after games. After an appeals court ruled in January in favor of the Bremerton school district, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the case on Monday.

Among the most sympathetic justices to Kennedy’s case were Amy Coney Barrett and Clarence Thomas, two of the Court’s most conservative judges.

Thomas suggested to Kennedy’s lawyer that it was a good thing that the school district reacted to the coach kneeling and praying as opposed to there already being a policy in place that forbids such actions, according to SCOTUSblog, an independent source of news and analysis of the U.S. Supreme Court.

SCOTUSblog specifically wrote that “a majority of the Supreme Court appeared sympathetic.”

Thomas said he and his fellow Supreme Court justices “were aware” that Kennedy kneeling and praying after games “is not part of his job.” However, Thomas added, it was “music to my ears” that the Bremerton school district only found out about Kennedy kneeling and praying when an opposing coach complained.

Thomas’ comments seemed to suggest he might side with Kennedy.

Coney Barrett — who was notably sworn in by Thomas in 2020 when she began her tenure on the Supreme Court — took that sentiment a few steps farther with commentary that evoked a direct correlation to Kaepernick and his claims that he was blacklisted by the NFL for kneeling.

She specifically defended Kennedy’s right to kneeling, in particular, and said any attempt to punish him for that is unconstitutional.

“Even if he’s not communicating to an audience, so he’s completely silent, he just takes a knee,” Coney Barrett said. “That’s protected speech.”

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who is also conservative, previously suggested he would side with Kennedy after calling the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision against the coach “troubling.”

Of course, Kaepernick famously never got another contract offer from any NFL team after his silent kneeling protest upset conservatives across the country, including and especially NFL ownership. Kaepernick sued the NFL and accused its ownership of colluding to keep him out of the professional football league and ultimately settled the lawsuit in 2019.

The Supreme Court has never offered an opinion on Kaepernick’s case. But if Kennedy’s case is any indication, the most conservative justices would, in theory, side with the free-agent quarterback still fighting for a chance to play again.

It is an irony that is likely tough to reconcile for Kaepernick supporters, who see a grave injustice done in the name of violating his right to freedom of speech and expression. But the main difference between Kennedy’s and Kaepernick’s cases is that the Bremerton school district is public, making it open to a different interpretation of the law than the NFL, which is comprised of privately owned franchises that can impose its own set of rules and regulations.

Los Angeles Rams v San Francisco 49ers

Colin Kaepernick #7 and Eric Reid #35 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel in protest during the national anthem prior to playing the Los Angeles Rams in their NFL game at Levi’s Stadium on September 12, 2016, in Santa Clara, California. | Source: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty

There is also irony in Justices Thomas and Coney Barrett being sympathetic toward Kennedy’s case while the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal judge, once blasted Kaepernick’s kneeling protest as “dumb” and insisted it shows “contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life.”

Either way, the act of kneeling was not explicitly forbidden by either the Bremerton school district or the NFL until they each became aware that it was happening.

That is not to mention Tim Tebow, whose kneeling in prayer before football games turned into a cultural phenomenon called “Tebowing” that was celebrated across the country and never once resulted in any disciplinary action despite its similarities in nature to both Kennedy’s and Kaepernick’s actions. Not coincidentally, Tebow was given a second chance at the NFL last year playing a position he has never played before even though his success in college never translated on a professional level.

This is America.


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