Ninth Circuit Rules Against Football Coach Suspended for Praying With Players After Games

A screengrab from a video report on the Bremerton High School football team coach’s prayer activities.
A screengrab from a video report on the Bremerton High School football team coach’s prayer activities. | YOUTUBE / Liberty Institute

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against a Washington state public high school coach who was suspended from his job for praying with players after football games.

In a unanimous decision released Wednesday, the panel affirmed a lower court ruling denying Coach Joe Kennedy injunctive relief against the Bremerton School District that suspended him for refusing to stop praying with players on the field.

Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. authored the panel's opinion, stating that by being a coach for public high school football team, Kennedy's practice of praying constituted a government endorsement of a particular religion.

"We conclude that Kennedy spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and therefore decline to reach whether BSD justifiably restricted Kennedy's speech to avoid violating the Establishment Clause," wrote Judge Smith.

"Kennedy accordingly cannot show a likelihood of success on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim, and is not entitled to the preliminary injunction he seeks."

Smith went on to label Kennedy's prayer practice "constitutionally unprotected" and warned that "such activity can promote disunity along religious lines, and risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all."

Football coach Joe Kennedy speaking on ABC News.
Football coach Joe Kennedy speaking on ABC News. | (Photo: Screenshot/ABC News)

A devout Christian, while serving as coach of the football team at Bremerton High School, Kennedy developed the practice of praying on the 50-yard line of the football field immediately after each game.

Initially praying alone, members of the high school team later decided to joined him on the field in prayer.

In September 2015, Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell sent a letter to Kennedy telling him that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause.

When Kennedy refused to halt his practice, he was placed on administrative leave in October 2015 and was eventually suspended.

In December 2015, Kennedy filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the school district, which granted him a right-to-sue.

In June 2016, with the aid of the conservative law firm the First Liberty Institute, Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the school district.

"Whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are a person of devout faith or no faith at all, we should all seek to defend the right to free speech," First Liberty senior counsel Michael Berry said in a statement last year. "It's central to our American identity as a diverse, pluralistic society, where we foster the free exchange of ideas."

Americans United for Separation of Church & State, a liberal group that filed an amicus brief on behalf of the school district, celebrated the Ninth Circuit panel's decision.

"Students and families have the right to decide whether and how to practice their faith. Public schools should be welcoming places for all students and families, and no student should feel like an outsider at his or her school," Americans United's Legal Director Richard B. Katskee said.

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