High School Football Coach Fired for Praying Loses in Court Again

March 9, 2020 Updated: March 9, 2020
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A high school football coach loses again in his court battle against a school district who fired him for praying on the 50-yard line following games after a federal judge ruled against him last week.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton sided with Bremerton School District in Washington state, ruling that the district’s right to block coach Joe Kennedy’s religious expression when it violates the Constitution’s Establishment Clause came before a public-school educator’s right to free religious expression.

“Although the Court is sympathetic to Kennedy’s desire to follow his beliefs, the former right must give way to the latter in this case,” Leighton wrote in his opinion on March 5.

This ruling comes after the Supreme Court denied to hear Kennedy’s appeal in January 2019 after he lost his case in both the district court and 9th Circuit. Justice Samuel Alito said at the time in a statement (pdf) that the justices did not agree with the lower courts’ decision but could not take up the case because of “important unresolved factual questions.” He was joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh.

“[T]he Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Alito wrote.

In the case at hand, cited as Joseph A. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Kennedy previously served as a coach for Bremerton High School junior varsity football team from 2008 until the 2015–16 season. Since 2008, Kennedy has consistently taken a knee on the football field and silently thanked God for his players. His conduct first came to the attention of district officials in 2015, where they asked him to stop. In response to the district’s demand, First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal organization representing Kennedy, wrote a letter arguing that teachers and administrators do not lose their rights of religious expression upon entering a school. The attorneys asked the school to make accommodations that would allow Kennedy to pray when players were not on the field, but the school district refused.

District officials then suspended Kennedy and refused to renew his contract, prompting the coach to sue for religious discrimination. The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, leading to an appeal in the 9th circuit. In 2017, the circuit judges ruled against him, stating in an opinion (pdf) that Kennedy’s prayers were not protected by the Constitution because he was acting in the capacity of a public employee, as opposed to a private citizen, when he kneeled and prayed on the football field. This then led to an appeal to the Supreme Court. The case then returned to the district court for further review.

Kennedy’s attorney, Mike Berry from First Liberty, said they were disappointed in the March 5 decision but plans to appeal.

“We are undeterred in our mission to obtain justice for Coach Kennedy,” Berry said in a statement. “For almost five long years Joe has had to miss coaching the game he loves. Joe has fought—first as a U.S. Marine, then as a coach—to prove that every American has the right to engage in individual religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. He knows this fight isn’t over.”

Kennedy’s case previously garnered nationwide attention, including from President Donald Trump.

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