SEATTLE — An hourlong court hearing here last month was a major step in determining whether a high school coach who refused to stop praying on the football field could get his job back.
The June 12 hearing, held by the U.S. Court for Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, focused on the firing in 2015 of Coach Joe Kennedy by the Bremerton (Wash.) School District.
Kennedy was the head coach of the Bremerton High School junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team.
Beginning with his first football game as a coach, in 2008, Kennedy waited until the game had ended and the players had cleared the field. He then walked on the field, took a knee, and silently thanked God for his players and the opportunity to coach them. He continued this brief, silent religious expression for more than seven years without complaint by students, coaches, or parents.
In October 2015, the school district instructed him to cease the religious practice, denied Kennedy’s request for a religious accommodation, and ordered him to not only stop praying, but to refrain from any “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to . . . students and the attending public.”
Kennedy defied the district’s orders and a team gathering and prayer was held that month at midfield, with hundreds of parents and other joining him in support. The district responded by banning everyone from the field after games, particularly after a group of Satanists also gathered on the field in response to Kennedy’s Christian prayers.
Kennedy was placed on leave by the district in October 2015 and then terminated in November. Last August he filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights.
Kennedy’s legal team sought to have him reinstated as a coach, but a federal district court judge in Tacoma last fall declined to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Kennedy. He was asking the court to have the district immediately rehire him.
Last October, Kennedy appealed the district court judge’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit court. He does not seek money damages, but simply hopes to return to the sidelines to coach his players.
Kennedy is represented by Texas-based First Liberty Institute, the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedoms. He also has drawn support from President Trump; Ben Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“We are committed to protecting Coach Kennedy’s right to religious freedom,” said Mike Berry, the institute’s deputy general counsel. “If the Constitution protects the right of a football coach to kneel in protest, it should certainly protect the right of a football coach to kneel in silent prayer. We hope the court will allow a great coach to be reunited with his players at Bremerton High. The First Amendment guarantees Coach Kennedy’s right to freely exercise his religion.”
During the hearing, the three-member panel of judges asked why the district had allowed Kennedy’s prayers to go on for more than seven years before bringing it to a halt. One judge pointed out that a visitor from another district had attended a game and had commented about Kennedy’s actions.
Michael Tierney, attorney for the district, acknowledged that the district should have recognized earlier how controversial Kennedy’s actions could become, but in all of those years, no one had complained to the district, he said.
The district contends that as a coach, Kennedy was also a role model and that students were particularly suspectible to his influence and his beliefs, so the district was in the right to order him to stop the prayers.
Tierney said the district tried to accommodate the coach by offering up a private room or allowing him back onto the field alone after the game for a moment of private prayer. Kennedy turned down the offers, saying they weren’t consistent with his beliefs.
Kennedy’s attorney, Rebekah Ricketts of Dallas, Texas, said Kennedy and his legal team believe it is unreasonable to think that a “15- to 30-second” silent prayer on the sidelines after a game comes anywhere close to violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prevents government from endorsing any religion.
The judges did not indicate how soon they would rule on the case.