Ruling on Field Stands for High School Coach Suspended for Praying on 50-yard Line

On August 23, 2017, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction by Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy, who accused the school of violating his First Amendment rights by prohibiting him from praying on the 50-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 defied 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.

The three-judge panel said Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.” The court reasoned that Kennedy could have prayed in his office or other private location near the field rather than the 50-yard line, and determined that his role at the school was akin to that of a teacher, rather than a private citizen. The panel unanimously held Kennedy’s prayers were not protected as free speech. “Teachers and coaches don’t get to pressure students to pray,” Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a written statement August 23. In contrast, First Liberty Institute attorney Jeremy Dys commented that “[n]ow coaches across the country stand under the prospect of being prevented from engaging in any outward displays of religion. That includes crossing yourself or even taking a knee to pray.”

The dispute has drawn significant attention from the media. A Satanist group said it also wanted to pray on the football field, and President Trump featured Kennedy during his campaign at an event in Virginia last October. Kennedy’s religious freedom case will still head to trial court.

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