High school football coach fired for praying after games loses again in federal court

Coach Joe Kennedy filing his complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in December 2015 against Bremerton School District. | (Photo: Courtesy Liberty Institute)

After the U.S. Supreme Court sent his case back to a lower court last year, a federal judge ruled this week that a school district in Washington state was within its right to prohibit high school football coach Joe Kennedy from kneeling in prayer on the 50-yard-line after games.

Federal Judge Ronald Leighton granted Bremerton School District’s motion for summary judgment in Kennedy’s case on Thursday.

Kennedy was suspended from his role as head coach of the Bremerton High School football team in 2015 after he refused to stop praying on the field after games, something he had done since 2008.

Kennedy sued in 2016 on grounds that his right to religious expression as a school employee had been violated by the school district.  

However, his request for an injunction was denied by Leighton in 2016. Kennedy also suffered defeat when his case was heard by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2017. 

Last January, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. Even though conservative justices led by Samuel Alito thought there could be serious constitutional issues in Kennedy’s free speech claim, they concurred with the refusal because there were unanswered factual questions surrounding the school district’s reasoning for banning the prayer. 

According to the Kitsap Sun, Leighton argued this week that the school district has a right to restrict religious expression if it feels the expression creates an illusion of government endorsing religion. 

Under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, governments are prohibited from establishing an official religion. 

“Although the court is sympathetic to Kennedy’s desire to follow his beliefs, the former right must give way to the latter in this case,” Leighton wrote.

The nonprofit legal group representing Kennedy, the First Liberty Institute, vowed to again appeal to Leighton’s ruling to the Ninth Circuit.  

“We are disappointed in this decision, but we are undeterred in our mission to obtain justice for Coach Kennedy,” First Liberty Institute General Counsel Mike Berry said in a statement.

“For almost five long years Joe has had to miss coaching the game he loves. Joe has fought — first as a U.S. Marine, then as a coach — to prove that every American has the right to engage in individual religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. He knows this fight isn’t over.”

Bremerton School District spokeswoman Karen Bevers told the Kitsap Sun that the district had no comment on Leighton’s ruling other than the school district "looks forward to the conclusion of this matter” but knows that the ruling is subject to appeal.

Kennedy’s case has gained national attention. In January, Kennedy visited President Donald Trump in the Oval Office and participated in a ceremony in which Trump announced that the U.S. Education Department would inform schools nationwide they can’t prevent teachers or students from praying in public schools. 

In 2015, then-candidate Trump issued a tweet in support of Kennedy. 

“Support Coach Kennedy and his right, together with his young players, to pray on the football field,” Trump tweeted at the time. 

As Kennedy’s case has gained much media attention, he has drawn support from influential figures in both coaching and Christianity. Those include college football coaching legend Bobby Bowden and evangelist Franklin Graham, the son of the late Billy Graham. 

Kennedy’s case comes as secular legal groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation regularly pressure public school districts and other government agencies to end any type of perceived endorsement of religion or prayer. 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has argued that Kennedy’s actions are a “clear violation of religious freedom” because it forces kids to “choose between their own beliefs and appeasing the man who decides the lineup for the game.”

“Luckily, the school district recognized and put a stop to this coercive act, sending the clear message that the beliefs of all students must be respected,” Americans United President Rachel Laser said in a statement.

Over the last few years, several college coaches and high school athletics teams have been pressured by legal groups to no longer pray during practices or games. 

In some cases, school districts have taken action to stop team prayers or prayers over the loudspeakers before games

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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