Ninth Circuit Court Rules Against Coach Fired for Mid-Field Prayers

The court claims Coach Kennedy "took advantage of his position."

By Liberty McArtor Published on August 23, 2017

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against former high school football coach Joe Kennedy on Wednesday. Bremerton School District suspended Kennedy in 2015 for praying at mid-field. Kennedy sued the school district in 2016, after they did not renew his contract. The religious freedom non-profit law firm First Liberty Institute is representing Kennedy.

First Liberty claims Kennedy has a Constitutional right to express his religion by praying after football games. But the Ninth Circuit ruled that Kennedy “spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen when he kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line.” The Court further found that Bremerton School District was right to punish Kennedy. 

No Praying on the Football Field

Kennedy, a retired Marine, began praying after games when he first started coaching in 2008. 

While he initially prayed alone on the field, players started asking to join in. “It’s a free country,” Kennedy responded, allowing them to join at will. Over time the post-game prayers evolved into a tradition. Members of both teams would gather after games while Kennedy gave a brief, encouraging talk, giving thanks for the players and the game.

Years later the district was alerted to the prayers when someone complimented Kennedy’s leadership and example. 

In September 2015, the district ordered Kennedy to stop praying. It claimed his prayers violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. According to First Liberty, Kennedy’s prayers were “constitutionally protected.” Kennedy eventually requested a religious accommodation, but was denied. When he prayed on the field anyway, the district suspended him. In 2016, the district did not renew his contract. 

The EEOC granted Kennedy the right to sue for religious discrimination. First Liberty sought to have Kennedy reinstated in time for the 2016 football season. Last October, a district court denied their request.

Next Steps

Kennedy appeared before the Ninth Circuit for oral arguments in June. Two former NFL stars, the Seattle Seahawks’ Steve Largent and the Dallas Cowboys’ Chad Hennings, submitted amicus briefs. They argued that the district court’s decision not to reinstate Coach Kennedy “all but erases the line between public and private expression” for public school employees.

High school football coaches Kellen Alley and Joseph Thomas also supported Kennedy with an amicus brief. Alley and Thomas knelt alongside their players during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. They argued that “wearing school colors or being on the field does not rob a person of his or her right to engage in private expression under the First Amendment.”

The Ninth Circuit disagreed Wednesday. Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him,” the opinion states.

First Liberty attorney Jeremy Dys told The Stream  in June what steps they would take should the Ninth Circuit rule against Kennedy. They would first ask for a rehearing en banc. That would allow all nine judges at the Ninth Circuit to hear the case again. If the Ninth Circuit still rules against Kennedy, the next step will be the U.S. Supreme Court. 

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