Washington School District Urges Ninth Circuit to Uphold its Suspension of Football Coach for Praying on Fifty-Yard Line

On October 13, 2017 Bremerton School District, a Washington state district, urged the Ninth Circuit to maintain its ruling that the school had the right to stop a football coach from praying on the field after games, hitting back at claims that the ruling was in opposition of the First Amendment.

In August, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction by the school’s former football coach Joseph Kennedy, who accused the school of violating his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after football games. The prayers had started with just Kennedy on the field, but some players joined in over the years, and the prayers evolved into short motivational speeches. Although the praying took place after the games, students and parents were still present. Kennedy had been suspended after he disobeyed the school district’s 2015 ban on his prayers, and his request in August 2016 for a preliminary injunction to force the district to re-hire him while his lawsuit proceeded was denied.

Kennedy has now filed a petition for a rehearing. In opposition to the rehearing petition, the school argued that the ruling aligned with precedent set by both the appeals court and the U.S. Supreme Court, adding that the ruling did not, as Kennedy argued, give schools far-reaching power to stop all demonstrative religious activity. The school district argued “notwithstanding Kennedy’s parade of horribles, the court made no ruling on saying grace, wearing a yarmulke, or displaying a lapel pin; this case was about Kennedy’s specific conduct, in the specific context where it occurred, and was decided on its particular facts.” Specifically the school argued that the court considered a number of factors supporting its ruling that Kennedy was acting as a public employee while praying on the field, including the fact that the speech happened at school football games, that he joined the events as a football coach, that the speech was in the presence of students and somewhat directed at them, and that the public did not have similar access to where the speech transpired — at the fifty-yard line of the field. The school urged the court not to reconsider its decision.

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