A U.S. appeals court ruled Thursday (March 18) against a high school football coach who claimed his former school district violated his rights by dismissing him for leading students in prayer.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District found that the school in Washington protected the religious freedom rights of students by preventing high school football coach Joseph Kennedy from leading a prayer time on the football field at the end of games. He sued after the school suspended him without pay in 2015 and then didn’t renew his contract.
“The record before us and binding Supreme Court precedent compel the conclusion that the District would have violated the Establishment Clause by allowing Kennedy to pray at the conclusion of football games, in the center of the field, with students who felt pressured to join him,” wrote Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. in the unanimous ruling affirming the lower court’s decision.
The court added that while the district “tried to reach an accommodation for Kennedy” that would include different prayer options, those efforts were “spurned by his insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, likely surrounded by students who felt pressured to join him.” It also noted that he started giving devotional speeches in addition to quietly praying.
Richard B. Katskee, vice president and legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, participated in oral arguments on Jan. 25 to support the school district. He praised the ruling in a statement.
“Public schools must provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. That includes ensuring that student athletes don’t feel compelled to pray or participate in religious activities to secure their place on a team,” he said. “The Bremerton School District did the right thing: It protected the religious freedom of all the students and their families.”
Although Kennedy claimed the case was just about private prayer, the court noted his “pugilistic efforts to generate publicity in order to gain approval of those on-field religious activities” while he was still employed by the school.
“Kennedy’s attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to BSD compels the conclusion that he was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties,” the opinion adds.
Earlier this month, Kennedy’s case was highlighted in a CBS News documentary on efforts to remake America a “Christian nation.” Kennedy spoke in the film about his case, claiming he had to “choose between my job and my faith.”
Word&Way Editor Brian Kaylor is also featured in the film, cast on the other side of the debate as he criticized Christian Nationalism and urged religious liberty for all.