Coach in high school football prayer controversy awaits court's ruling

Shannon Scovel

Nearly two years after being put on leave for praying on the football field after a game, Bremerton High School (Washington) assistant coach Joseph Kennedy’s job now hangs in the balance of the 9th Circuit Appeals court.

Kennedy, who had been coaching at Bremerton High in Washington state since 2008, sued his school in 2016 after the high school placed the coach on leave for refusing to abide with an on-field prayer restriction.

A three-judge panel in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case on Monday. The court is currently deciding Kennedy’s case, but no decision date has been revealed.

The Washington Times reported that Kennedy’s prayers started out as private affairs, lasting between 15 to 30 seconds. The coach had been praying on the field throughout his entire tenure with the program, and players from both teams would then join in with Kennedy’s permission.

No one addressed the prayer until an opposing team commented, and complimented, the action. Bremerton High School then immediately responded to the comment and released a memo banning the prayer.

Members of the Bremerton High School community then joined Kennedy at the homecoming game to pray with him, defying the memo. The prayer, however, led to Kennedy’s suspension, and consequently, the lawsuit.

Kennedy remained on payroll during his “leave,” but he was not permitted to coach or participated in the football program “in any capacity” unless he agreed to not pray on the field. His contract was not renewed for 2016.

The Kitsap Sun reported that Kennedy had received positive feedback on his work in the role up until 2015. However, at the end of the 2015 season the district noted that he demonstrated “a lack of cooperation with the administration” and was recommended as a “do not rehire” case. All district employees must reapply for their position every year, and Kennedy did not reapply after his leave.

Yet Kennedy is now in court, fighting for the right to religious freedom and the right to coach again under his own terms. The former assistant coach said all he wants in the case is the opportunity to rejoin his football program and observe his faith. 

“I want to be a coach. I want to be out there with my young men,” Kennedy told the Kitsap Sun. “I really believe [coaches] are one of the mentors for these young men to become somebody in society, to know how to be better young men.”  

Kennedy claims in his lawsuit that he had been discriminated against for his religious beliefs and that the school violated his First Amendment rights. He is represented in the case by the First Liberty Institute, a group committed to “protecting religious freedoms for all Americans,” according to the firm’s website.

Hiram Sasser, a deputy chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, defended Kennedy and argued that school officials should be allowed to express their individuality and personality as long as such expression is not sponsored by the state. Upholding the initial ruling and refusing to reinstate Kennedy sends a dangerous First Amendment message, Sasser said.

“The rule they’re advocating for would ban, for example, Muslim teachers from wearing a hijab, a Jewish coach from wearing a yarmulke or even a teacher wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday or making the sign of a cross before eating a meal,” Sasser said. “So that type of rule is so broad that it would impact negatively millions of Americans and their religious liberty rights in public education.”

The school currently allows employees to wear clothing or jewelry that align and symbolize their religious beliefs.

Michael Tierney, the district attorney, argued against Kennedy’s actions, saying that his prayer violated the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause. He said that Kennedy’s actions may have pressured other students to conform to a particular religious activity.

When a judge asked why the district waited seven years to punish Kennedy for his prayer, Tierney defended the delay, saying that while Kennedy gathered his team on the field together, many in the district suspected he was simply giving an “inspirational speech.”

Kennedy’s legal team asked that the coach be put back in a paid position while his case is being decided.

The Supreme Court decided on a similar case 17 years ago, in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe where the court ruled that student-led and student-initiated prayer broadcast over the sound system at high school football games was not protected under the Constitution.