‘Coaches Don’t Get To Pressure Students To Pray,’ Court Strikes Praying Coach’s Appeal

Joshua Gill | Religion Reporter

A federal court struck down the appeal of Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach in Washington who was fired for praying on the field after games.

A three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed Kennedy’s appeal on the grounds that praying silently on the field after a game for 15 to 30 seconds constituted forcing his beliefs on students, according to the Associated Press. Students were not required to pray with him.

“By kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, Kennedy was sending a message about what he values as a coach, what the District considers appropriate behavior, and what students should believe, or how they ought to behave,” Judge Milan Smith wrote.

Smith added that Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.”

Bremerton School District effectively fired Kennedy in 2015 after he dismissed a directive that forbade him from exercising his faith in any way that would be visible to students. That directive included anything that could be construed as a visible expression of faith, from praying to wearing a religious icon. Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in June that legal support of such a directive held dire consequences.

“Think about where that leads,” Dys said. “That means that the Muslim teacher could not wear her hijab. It means that the Jewish teacher could not wear his yarmulke to the public school setting. It means the Catholic teacher could not wear her crucifix.”

The school district feared that Kennedy’s prayers could be considered a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Dys said that the school’s actions at the time of Kennedy’s firing constituted a violation of Title 7, federal employment law, “which requires them to accommodate an employee’s religious beliefs so long as doing so does not cause an undue hardship upon the employer.”

Mike Berry, deputy general counsel to First Liberty, said in a statement provided to TheDCNF that the court’s decision was unreasonable and that the battle for Kennedy’s would not end with their ruling.

“According to the Ninth Circuit, it is unconstitutional for a coach to make a sign of the cross or bow his head in prayer when a player gets hurt,” Berry said. “We are deeply disappointed by the decision and will consider all options available to Coach Kennedy as we continue to review the opinion.”

“Banning all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen is wrong,” First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford said in the same statement. “This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”

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