TACOMA, Wash. — A federal judge has declined to grant a preliminary injunction against officials with a Washington school district who fired a high school football coach in the midst of a battle over his desire to pray at the 50-yard line.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush, announced on Monday that he was denying the request for the injunction, which would have required the Bremerton School District to re-hire Coach Joe Kennedy while his case moves forward in court.
As previously reported, Kennedy, the former assistant head coach for the varsity team at Bremerton High School and the head coach for the junior varsity team, was placed on paid administrative leave last October when he prayed at the conclusion of the homecoming game despite an order to cease his practice.
Kennedy said that he began offering brief prayers on the field in 2008, then praying on his own. He was subsequently approached by several team members who asked what he was doing.
“I was thanking God for you guys,” Kennedy recalls responding. “Then a couple said they were Christians and asked if they could join. I responded, ‘It’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.’”
He said that he never asked students to pray with him, but some desired to, including those from the opposing team.
“They just all showed up one day and the next thing I know, the other team was showing up with us,” Kennedy said.
In September 2015, the Bremerton School District launched an investigation into the coach’s practices, and soon sent a letter outlining that some aspects of his religious expression must discontinue. It noted that Kennedy not only prayed at the conclusion of each game, but also prayed in the locker room with students and staff.
While Superintendent Aaron Leavell acknowledged that “[e]ach activity has been voluntary” and that Kennedy has not “actively encouraged or required participation,” he asserted that the practices were still unconstitutional. He laid out rules so that the district would decrease its chances of a lawsuit, stating that while Kennedy may engage in religious activity, “students may not be allowed to join such activity.”
But although Kennedy agreed to discontinue the locker room prayer, his attorneys with the Texas-based group First Liberty stated that he had done nothing wrong in seeking to pray by himself at the conclusion of each game. They opined there is neither any constitutional violation in permitting students to join.
As Kennedy offered a prayer at October’s homecoming game, and was voluntarily surrounded by his team and scores of other supporters, he was consequently placed on paid leave until he agrees not to pray at the 50-yard-line. In January, the district decided not to renew his teaching contract, effectively putting him out of a job.
In December, the former U.S. Marine turned football coach filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging workplace retaliation against his Christian expression in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Last month, Kennedy’s attorneys also filed a federal lawsuit challenging his firing at the high school.
“Upon information and belief, although BHS Assistant Coach David Boynton has engaged in a Buddhist chant at the 50-yard line at the conclusion of many BHS games—and has continued to do so after BSD issued its … letter—BSD did not take adverse employment action against Coach Boynton on the basis of his religious expression,” the legal challenge read.
Mike Berry, an attorney with First Liberty, told reporters on Tuesday that while Kennedy’s legal team is disappointed in Leighton’s initial denial of the requested injunction, they see the matter as only a temporary setback.