An Appeals Court has ruled against a football coach who wouldn’t stop praying on the field.
Joe Kennedy is the former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington who continued to pray on the field despite several warnings that he was violating the law. In December of 2015, the District said they wouldn’t be renewing his contract.
And last August, he filed a federal lawsuit against his former District.
To go into a bit more detail, back in September of 2015, when Kennedy was told that he couldn’t lead prayers with his team, he quickly decided he wanted to be the next Kim Davis, acting as if his religious freedom was under attack. He threatened to pray on the field anyway, making a high school football game all about him. District officials told him to stop it. Kennedy threatened to sue. Even The Satanic Temple got involved by telling everyone that they had an on-field prayer ready to go if Kennedy went through with one of his own. It was just a huge spectacle all around. And after granting him a paid leave, the District got rid of him and his pseudo-martyr ways for good.
The lawsuit against the Bremerton School District, filed by First Liberty, claimed that Kennedy wanted nothing more than to “pray quietly and alone” after football games. Right on the field when everyone was still around. (Seriously.)
Kennedy was praying before the students had gotten out of their uniforms. Before the post-game conversation with the team. Before interviews with local media. In other words, he was still on the clock.
His argument made as much sense as a classroom teacher saying, “I wasn’t praying publicly during Math class. I did it while the students were turning the pages in their textbooks.”
If what Kennedy did was legal, then every public school coach in the country would have a new loophole allowing them to pray with their teams. Don’t say you were “leading” a prayer. Just say you were doing it on your own, but everyone just happened to join in!
It was an awful argument. What Kennedy did was coercive from the very beginning. Students knew that he was a Christian because he made it clear after every game. If they wanted to get on his good side, they could pray with him. That could be the difference leading to more playing time and all the benefits that come with it. Even if Kennedy denied that he treated players differently because of their faith, the whole point is that he shouldn’t have been putting them in that situation in the first place. That’s why public school coaches are prohibited from pushing their faith while working.
The lawsuit said the District violated Kennedy’s right to free speech, free exercise, and his civil rights — discriminating against him, he argued, because he’s a Christian.
That wasn’t true. He wasn’t persecuted because he’s a Christian. He got away with it as long as he did because he’s a Christian.
Kennedy didn’t want money. He wanted his old job back. But he’s shown repeatedly that he can’t be trusted in that position. He sees it as a method for evangelism, not a way to improve kids’ lives.
That’s why, in September, a federal district court judge refused to overturn the District’s decision.
Kennedy’s legal team appealed the decision, and both sides presented their case to a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals back in June.
It’s a really fascinating video to watch, because the judges kept calling Kennedy’s side out for their obvious exaggerations. There was nothing quiet or alone about his very public prayers, they argued. They brought up The Satanic Temple’s proposed prayer and whether that presented a valid legal challenge.
And today, they issued their ruling against Kennedy.
In sum, when Kennedy kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State celebrated the decision:
“Teachers and coaches don’t get to pressure students to pray,” said Richard B. Katskee, Americans United’s legal director. “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.”
Added Katskee, “The court agreed that the Bremerton School District could protect the religious freedom of its students. The school district was on the right side of history and religious freedom, and Americans United was proud to support its efforts.“
It’s hard to see how Bremerton has any path forward if he wants to appeal to the full Ninth Circuit or the Supreme Court. This was a complete and thorough denunciation of his actions.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)