The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that a Washington school district can ban a former coach from praying on the field after football games.
Joseph Kennedy, the school’s former football coach, sued the Bremerton School District after alleging his rights were violated when the district banned him from praying in the middle of the football field after games ended, according to the court’s ruling.
“Kennedy’s attempt to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to the District showed that he was not engaging in private prayer,” the three-judge panel ruled. “Instead, he was engaging in the public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties.”
Judge Milan D. Smith wrote Kennedy told the district he intended to keep praying and would solicit local and national media coverage to advance his case. In some instances, parents, local community members and players from both football teams would rush onto the field and join Kennedy in his prayers.
Attorneys representing Kennedy said the ruling was “wrong” in a statement. (RELATED: Indian Nations University Student Paper Editor Sues School For Restricting Speech)
“Banning coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution,” First Liberty Institute’s General Counsel Mike Berry said in the statement. “Today’s opinion threatens the rights of millions of Americans who simply want to be able to freely exercise their faith without fear of losing their job. We plan to appeal, and we hope the Supreme Court will right this wrong. This fight is far from over.”
The debacle began in 2008 when Kennedy began praying on the 50-yard line after each game, usually joined by his team and their opponents, Fox Seattle reported. The superintendent later sent a letter to staff informing them they were not allowed to have “talks with students” that “include religious expression including prayer,” according to the report.
The school argued there was a constitutionally protected right for separation of church and state, which meant prayer was not allowed in public schools. Kennedy and his lawyers argued since he prayed after games ended, he was no longer on the clock, according to the report.
The Ninth Circuit ruled in 2017 that Kennedy was not entitled to get his job back because he took advantage of his position when he kept praying not the football field. The Supreme Court later declined to hear the case and in 2020 a district court judge ruled in favor of Bremerton School District’s motion. Kennedy appealed the decision, ending the suit at the court of appeals.