BREMERTON — Public support for Joe Kennedy from President Trump, Housing Secretary Ben Carson and others wasn’t enough to sway the opinion of a federal appeals court regarding a former Bremerton High School football coach.
A three-judge panel for the California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last month ruled against Kennedy’s legal fight to be reinstated to the job he lost because of a controversy over his post-game prayers on the field. The judges had heard the case in June.
The Seattle Times reported that Kennedy and his legal team at the conservative First Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, are weighing various next steps, including seeking a rehearing, asking for a hearing before an expanded panel of judges, or an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Banning all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen is wrong,” First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford said after the ruling. “This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”
A former U.S. Marine, Kennedy was the head coach of the school’s junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team. Beginning with his first 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 any religious practice readily observable to students and the public, and, denied Kennedy’s request for a religious accommodation.
Kennedy defied the district’s orders and a team gathering was held that month at midfield, with hundreds of parents and others 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 responses to Kennedy’s Christian prayers.
Kennedy was placed on leave by the district in October 2015 and then terminated in November. In August 2016 he filed a lawsuit against the district, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights. He sought no money damages, but simply wanted his coaching position again.
The appeals court ruled last month that in his coaching position Kennedy was acting as a teacher, with a duty to the district, students and parents to set an example and “communicate demonstratively” to those groups.
The panel further determined that Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon impressionable and captive minds before him.”