High school football coach Joe Kennedy brought a lawsuit against Bremerton School District in Washington State on Tuesday, after district officials fired him for praying at midfield after games.
Kennedy’s legal team argues the district’s actions ran afoul of the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.
Kennedy, a combat veteran, coached Bremerton High School football from 2008 until his dismissal in January 2016. During his tenure, the coach prayed at the 50 yard line after the conclusion of each game, thanking God for his players and for the opportunity to coach. Over time, players of both teams, coaches, and members of the public have joined him in his brief religious observance, which typically runs less than 30 seconds. The district acknowledges that the prayer was not compulsory and that Kennedy did not compel or even encourage others to join him. No complaints have been filed concerning the coach’s conduct.
An investigation by the district into Kennedy’s postgame practice prompted a revised policy forbidding “demonstrative religious activity” which is “readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.”
“He didn’t feel he could, in good conscience, follow that,” Kennedy’s lawyer, Mike Berry, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “He was basically having to choose between his faith and his job.” Kennedy is represented by Berry, of the First Liberty Institute and Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher, a white shoe firm based in Los Angeles.
Kennedy’s lawyers argue that the district’s revised guidelines are unconstitutional.
“BSD’s revised directive, which purports to ban any ‘demonstrative religious activity’ that is ‘readily observable’ to students or members of the public, is baldly unconstitutional,” Kennedy’s lawsuit reads. “On its face, BSD’s policy would prohibit all on-duty school employees, while in view of any student or member of the community, from making the sign of the cross, praying towards Mecca, or wearing a yarmulke, headscarf, or a cross. After all, each of those actions is ‘demonstrative’ religious expression and would be interpreted as such.”
Kennedy continued to observe his postgame prayer until his suspension in October 2015. His contract with the district was not renewed in January. His last performance evaluation identified his failure to abide by the district policy as the reason for his termination.
Berry emphasized that Kennedy was engaged in private, constitutionally protected religious activity.
“The situation, and even the school district concedes this, is a coach wanting to engage in personal, private religious conduct and if students happen to see the coach do that and decide that they want to stand near him or kneel next to him, or do their own thing, then, as the record reflects, that’s their choice to do so,” Berry said.
“He neither encourages nor discourages,” he added.
Kennedy’s brief also points out another football coach, David Boynton, often recites a Buddhist chant at the conclusion of games and has not been sanctioned by the district.
“Our coaching staff can continue to provide motivational, inspirational talks to students before, during and after games and other team activity, focusing on appropriate themes such as unity, teamwork, responsibility, safety and endeavor,” Bremerton superintendent Aaron Leavell said in a statement provided to TheDCNF in September. “However, talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer. They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member and, importantly, violate the law and our board policy.”
Kennedy is not pursuing damages connected to his claim. Instead, he is petitioning to be reinstated as football coach, which Berry says is very much to the coach’s advantage. “Most of the time, municipal entities have insurance that covers them for lawsuits, but that insurance will only kick in if your asking for money damages,” he said. “It doesn’t kick in if the person is only seeking what’s called injunctive relief.” In affect, the district itself will likely have to absorb the costs related to the lawsuit because Kennedy has only asked to be reinstalled as coach with an accommodation for his religious observance.
“Basically what they’ve said is you can talk to other coaches, you can talk to the players, you can talk to the fans, but if you talk to God, you’re going to be fired,” Berry said. “That’s against the law in this country.”
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