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

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

Joe Kennedy

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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  • Tom Rath

    Protip: If you don’t want to lose your job for violating the Reagan-signed Equal Access Act of 1984, don’t violate the Equal Access Act of 1984.

    • LgVt

      Pro tip: Don’t name-drop irrelevant legislation unless you want to look like an idiot.

      The Equal Access Act of 1984 mandates equal access for extracurricular clubs. There was no club here, or even any sort of organization–it was just the coach kneeling in silent prayer on his own, and later, players joining him, or not, of their own volition.

      The EAA has nothing to do with this case–and you should be grateful for that, because the purpose of that law was to prevent schools from shutting down and denying access to clubs that they didn’t like. If the EAA applied here, it would be on Kennedy’s side, not Bremerton’s.

    • Bryan

      I’m confused: How do you believe that Act applies in this situation?

    • Myth Buster

      I believe the court ruled against the prayer simply because they were on government owned land and it had become part of a sport game/another activity supported by tax funds. In other words, it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Equal Access Act of 1984 allows religious groups to meet after school or during lunch, if they are not disruptive and all other religious groups also have that right to meet. But, I could be wrong. Why do you believe it violated the Reagan-signed Equal Access Act of 1984? Is there something about that Act I do not understand?

  • tether

    Another example of the Government’s Judicial over reach.
    This has got to stop. Since when is praying in public against the law?
    All this man was doing was giving thanks to the one he believes is responsible for making the event possible. He did not ask coerce others to join him they joined voluntarily.
    If that is illegal, then it should be illegal for teachers or government employees to express other forms of worship. Including worship of athletic events. No more cheering for your favorite team or idol. No more cheering at concerts or expressing gratitude towards others for their acts of kindness. No more praising athletes, musicians, actors, or anyone or anything else.

  • Christian Gold

    Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him,”
    In other words he was a public school teacher.

    • Tom Rath

      Except we have a Constitution and a slew of American jurisprudence which demand that the presence of
      mythology and superstition in public school environments be limited (other than part of student-run activities outside of instructional time) to
      actual academic discussions on…mythology and superstition.

      • Christian Gold

        If that were the case they wouldn’t teach failed theories such as Global Warming, Social Justice and revisionist history.

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