Appeals Court Rules Against High School Football Coach Who Lost Job for Praying on Field

BREMERTON, Wash. — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against a Washington football coach who was put out of a job in 2015 as school district officials decided not to renew his contract in the midst of a battle over his desire to pray at the 50-yard line.

“While we ‘recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as well as the sincere desire to include public prayer as part of [these] occasions,’ 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,” wrote Judge Milan Smith, appointed to the bench by then-President George W. Bush, on behalf of the three-judge panel.

“That is why the ‘preservation and transmission of religious beliefs and worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere, which itself is promised freedom to pursue that mission,'” he said, quoting from the 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Lee v. Weisman.

As previously reported, Joe 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 in October 2015 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.

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“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 cease. 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 the following month at the 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 2015, 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 August, Kennedy’s attorneys also filed a federal lawsuit challenging his firing at the high school. However, U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton, nominated to the bench by then-President George W. Bush, declined to grant an injunction that would have required the Bremerton School District to rehire Kennedy while his case moves forward in court.

Kennedy appealed, but on Wednesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously agreed with Leighton and likewise declined to grant the injunction.

“In sum, if Kennedy were to resume kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and spectators, an objective student observer would see an influential supervisor do something no ordinary citizen could do—perform a Christian religious act on secured school property while surrounded by players—simply because he is a coach,” it wrote.

“Irrespective of the district’s views on that matter, a reasonable observer would conclude in light of the history and context surrounding Kennedy’s conduct that the district, ‘in actuality,’ favors religion, and prefers Christianity in particular,” the court said.

Kennedy’s attorneys say that they are “deeply disappointed” with the ruling.

“The 9th Circuit believes they can ban all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen,” attorney Jeremy Dys told conservative commentator Todd Starnes. “That is simply wrong. It is not American. And it is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”

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  • NCOriolesFan

    Religious liberty is an affront to bigots.

    • LeftRight

      You mean freedom from the ignorance of religion.

      • Jerome Horwitz

        Not in the Constitution.

        • LeftRight

          Neither is your messiah.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            Not relevant.

          • LeftRight

            Entirely relevant. You posit that freedom from religious stupidity is not in the U.S. Constitution. Well it is simply not in those words. It is clear from the constitution that government can not endorse religion. And it is a fact that your “son of god” cult figure is not represent in the constitution in any way. Period. You’re free to waste your life worshiping some great boogeyman in the sky. I’m equally free to ridicule you for it. At least I would not impose my views on you. You’re free to to believe as you wish…in private!

          • Jerome Horwitz

            Get stuffed, commie.

          • rightsright

            I repeat that prayer in public is not allowed but rioting and violence against innocent people, elderly and whites, is acceptable as free speech?

          • Lrichtn

            Who says prayer in public is not allowed?

          • Lrichtn

            Actually the constitution protects the freedom to expression in public – it does not limit one to only private expression of their views. You really should study the constitution – it is a gift many Americans under appreciate.

      • NCOriolesFan

        Practice your ignorance freedom all you want. No Christian is telling you different.

  • Jerome Horwitz

    Think of what this ruling means:

    If your job is in any way affiliated with the government, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled you have no religious freedom.

    The only people that will surely cheer this will be the commies and atheists (usually the one and the same).

    I think we should see a protest to this blatant violation of the Constitution by having both coaches and players come to the field and just pray.

    • Blake Paine

      No they have ruled that government representatives have to be religiously neutral on the job consistent with court precedence.

      There are plenty of religious schools he could work at that would let him engage in religious acts with students — as long as they were ones the school spproved of.

      • Jerome Horwitz

        But why? No one should have to check their faith at the door because of who or where they work for.

        • Blake Paine

          Actually government representatives have to do just that when dealing with those under there charge like students, that whole establishment issue.

          As the court pointed out others who weren’t government employees didn’t have access to do what he was doing. He can’t take advantage of his government job to lead and influence religious expression of those under his charge.

          Don’t want the person at the DMV praying while I’m getting my driver license either.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            That’s utter nonsense. This is the United States of America, not the former Soviet Union.

          • Blake Paine

            Yep and in the US the government can’t put one belief over another when dealing with citizens and neither can it’s representatives in the commission of their jobs.

            The Satanist couldn’t come on the field and pray because it’s not an open forum. Same for the coach. Sauce::goose:gander.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            We aren’t talking about Satanists. To place them on the same level as Christians is insulting.

            The fact is, nobody is putting one religion over another. It’s someone praying to God and Jesus and you think they shouldn’t be able to.

            When someone can lose their job for praying, what country are we living in? Not the USA.

          • Blake Paine

            Satanism is as much a religion as Christianity, just as 1st amendment protected.

            No one lost their job for praying, they weren’t rehired because they couldn’t obey instructions and act as a government representative is required to act making themselves a potential legal liability.

            Again, need to pray with students at work there are plenty of private schools he can work for.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            1) No, it’s not.

            2) Yeah: “They didn’t lose their job, they just weren’t rehired.” Uh, they were fired. Read the article.

          • Blake Paine

            1) yes it is as long as the first amendment stands.

            2) read the truth, his contract ended, they didn’t offer him another. That’s how coaches contracts work, renewed annuslly at the discretion of the employer.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            1) The First Amendment doesn’t say that.

            2) Stop being intellectually dishonest. His employment was terminated regardless of how because he was praying. It wasn’t random and he didn’t quit.

          • Blake Paine

            1) yes it does, there is no preferred religion by government, there could be a law that allowed it.

            2) No, he was offered religious accommodation, a place to pray away from students, the ability to do so at the 50 hardline after students had departed. He just wanted to pray where a government representative couldn’t legally and refused to comply with his employer.

            There is a teacherswhopray organization, an advocacy group and even their first rule is don’t pray in front of students.

            His contract wasn’t renewed because he couldn’t obey instructions. This ruling won’t change no matter how far up it goes. if it did those Satanist would be just as protected as Christians by it – is that really what you want?

          • Jerome Horwitz

            1) *smh*

            The First Amendment says Congress cannot create its own religion or keep people from practicing theirs. That’s it. It never said anything else.

            2) None of that is relevant. The only thing that is, is nobody has the right to tell anyone where, when or if they can pray.

            I find it pretty funny that people can take a knee to protest this country but you can’t give praise and thanks to the Lord.

            This is why Trump won.

          • Blake Paine

            1) There can be no law that establishes a religion, allowing government employees to have special religious access to citizens is just the kind of thing it doesn’t allow.

            2) And since the courts have said it does for the government you just don’t understand the issue.

            Trump won because there are many stupid people in the world ruled by emotions rather than reason. They liked the lies he told because they pleased their itchy ears.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            1) Nobody is establishing a religion by praying. And Christianity has been around much longer than this nation.

            2) I understand it perfectly. I also understand judicial activism and tyranny.

            In all candor, Trump won because people were tired of corruption, the push to promote communism and socialism, the abandonment of immigration laws, the attitude we weren’t smart enough to know what was good for us, etc.

            No, we aren’t stupid. You just wish we were.

          • Blake Paine

            1) the government engaging in religious ritual is most certainly establishment.

            2) No realizing everyone has a right to not share the beliefs of the government representative is the only solution in a pluralistic country.

            Trump won them because so many aren’t bright enough to recognize corruption as he is a new high bar for corruption and admits it regularly.

            I think we’re done. Again the can appeal this til the cows come home – there is no right for the government to mix a representative’s religion with those of the citizens, particularly the vulnerable. If there is than those Satanist will have the same right to proselytize to the kids.

            Your choice.

          • Jerome Horwitz

            1) Praying isn’t creating anything. Stop being silly.

            2) We have freedom of religion. Not from it. I realize and understand you wish this was a communist country but alas, we are not, which means if seeing someone pray disgusts you that much you are welcome to cover your eyes, turn around, leave the area, or just go to a country that embraces your beliefs, like China and Cuba and maybe even North Korea.

          • Blake Paine

            1) yes praying is a religious bias manifest, stop being obtuse.

            2) Ha! You were the one trying to use court precedence but you dropped that as soon as you found out it didn’t support your view at all.

            The coach was given religious accommodation but his pride wouldn’t let him take it, being to addicted to the dog and pony show he acted as ringmaster of.

            Again, the courts will reach the same conclusion, the courts really have no choice as government employees can’t set up their own cults in the performance of their duty.

          • LeftRight

            Freedom of religion is freedom for it for those who do not believe. You can not force your beliefs on others any more than the state can.

          • Jerome Horwitz


          • rightsright

            And might I add that we did not vote for Obama. He got in by rampant cheating and if it were allowed to be divulged, all would know the truth as Obama knows. Obama did not even win the primary election in 2008. Hillary did and the DNC cheated her out of it and handed it to Obama. NOT A HILLARY FAN, I’M a Trump supporter always was and always will be, because despite all of the hate and opposition , he is trying to put America back together.

          • rightsright


          • james blue

            1) the first amendment protects ALL religious beliefs, even those you do not share.

          • Tangent002

            The coach can pray all he wants. What he cannot do is lead prayer with students, even if it is voluntary. The issue with Kennedy is not that he was praying, per se, it was that he was making a spectacle of it by marching out to the middle of the field to kneel and pray.

          • rightsright

            Amen! Been wondering the same, I believe I was asleep and woke up after eight years of the illegal #44 White House occupier, who wanted into the White House to give away all of our military secrets and destroy America, and asked where am I!

          • rightsright

            So how do you fee about Muslims praying five times a day and b ringing their prayer rugs? Having to pray at a specific time. Funny how I never see the left object to that.

          • Blake Paine

            They do it privately, just as this teacher was offered the opportunity to pray privately in several different ways.

            Go to the website teacherswhopray dot org and see teachers are totally free to practice their faith at work, they just can’t actively or passively involve their charges.

            This guy just loves an audience for his ‘Lord, Lord’ dog and pony show.

    • Lrichtn

      Good idea

  • LeftRight

    Would it be OK is a Satanic priest offered magical incantations before a game? Not with me. I don’t want any magical non-sense in the public sphere. Keep that crap in your tax-free temples to ignorance and fraud. Hooray for the Ninth Circuit and the kids at that school.

  • Helena Handbasket

    The Founders were good men – “free exercise of religion.”

    They must be spinning in their graves.

  • MCrow

    No public school official is permitted to promote a religion. It’s usually right in our contracts. In this case, the school board clearly made a decision to ensure that they were not favoring any religion or potentially making students feel alienated due to their religious beliefs or lack thereof. This is to ensure that no teacher can unduly influence students into their religion. If you think this is unfair, I’m a public school teacher and an atheist. Would you like me to promote atheism to your children?

  • james blue

    The coach was free to pray in private.

    I have to wonder if his desire to specifically pray on the field had more to do with wanting to be seen praying — Matthew 6:5

    • LeftRight

      Of course. All religious ritual is posing.

  • Croquet_Player

    Want to pray with your students? Fine, work at a private school. Public school students have a right to be completely free from any sort of religious proselytizing. Your religious freedom does not extend to violating their rights.

  • Susan

    But we have prayer rooms in public schools for Muslims. We Christians need to fight back. Where are the Joel Osteens of the world with are their millions of dollars? You would think they would be willing to spend a little of that money to fight for our religious freedom.

  • Mark Miller

    “or the free exercise thereof” Amend it or follow it.

  • Brendajanetorres

    Constitution does NOT say ‘Freedom FROM Religion’, but ‘Freedom OF Religion’….These Schools are infringing on our Freedom OF Religion!!!