Earlier this week, a federal appeals court ruled that Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach in Washington state, cannot have his job back due to his inappropriate conduct during his employment at Bremerton School District. What was the forbidden action which caused Coach Kennedy to lose his job? He simply prayed after his team’s games.
In Wednesday’s ruling, the three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court’s decision upholding Coach Kennedy’s firing after he continued to kneel down and pray at the 50-yard-line after games. Such had been his practice since shortly after he was hired back in 2008. Not long after their coach began praying at midfield, some of his players — and even some of their opponents — voluntarily began joining him in thanking God after they played ball.
“I’d like to lift these guys up for what they just did. They battled for 48 minutes and what started as a war we can all leave off as friends,” the coach would pray as players from both teams gathered with him.
This habit of praying with the players who wished to join him went on unhindered for quite some time, until the Bremerton School District ordered him to cease his prayers in 2015. After initially obeying the prohibition, however, Coach Kennedy realized that such a command was an unconstitutional abridgment of his right to the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
So he began again to pray. But eventually, his prayers cost him his job, and he was fired by the school district in October of 2015.
When Coach Kennedy took the school district to court, the district’s attorneys claimed that he was exerting pressure on students which could result in coercion. Since coercion of religious expression would violate the Constitution, no teachers should be able to exercise any religious expression, they reasoned. Therefore, the attorneys argued, public school employees cannot pray in front of their students lest such action be misconstrued as the school district’s endorsement of religion.
The court eventually agreed with the school district’s claims, writing that Coach Kennedy “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.” Nevertheless, the judges entirely disregarded the fact that the football players who chose to join in Coach Kennedy’s prayers did so voluntarily, and the fact that his players considered the prayers something “magical” almost like a “post-game speech” that “brought everybody, even the other teams back together.”
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, which represents Coach Kennedy, told The Daily Signal that the court’s ruling has many implications, potentially meaning that “the Muslim teacher cannot wear her hijab, the Jewish teacher cannot wear his yarmulke, [and] the Catholic teacher cannot wear her crucifix to work.”
First Liberty’s President Kelly Shackelford also criticized the decision saying, “Banning all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen is wrong. This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”
First Liberty is right. Telling a coach that he cannot pray is absurd. The fact that some players choose to join him in no way means that he is coercing them or that the school is endorsing religion.
What about Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment right to express his religion? Public school employees of any faith should be very concerned about this ruling. It is not just about the religious freedom of Coach Kennedy; it is about the religious freedom of every governmental employee, and indeed every American.