Jan 23, 2019

It is not an exaggeration to say that a coach can change a student’s life. As not only an educator but also as a role model, a coach can affect virtually every aspect of his students’ lives, teaching them important life lessons as well as helping them succeed on field. And coaches can bestow students with unique leadership opportunities, opening the doors to higher education and athletic scholarships.

But with this great power comes great responsibility: Public school coaches cannot pray with their students, because their special role in students’ lives will inevitably coerce students’ participation.

That’s why when Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state, insisted that he had a right to pray with players and students at the 50-yard line after games, his school’s superintendent intervened. Officials at the Bremerton School District understood that students and families have their own right to decide whether and how to practice their faith and that no student should feel like an outsider on his team because he is unable to join his coach’s prayers as a matter of his own religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Kennedy’s case, in which he argues that the superintendent’s intervention into his prayer practice with his team violated his free-speech rights. Some on the Religious Right have called this denial a “devastating blow to religious liberty,” but the court was right to uphold the decisions of the Bremerton School District, the U.S. Court for the Western District of Washington and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Let me clear up some of the apparent confusion about this case:

First, Kennedy’s lawyers and supporters wanted the high court to believe that his post-game prayer was “private conduct,” but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Just look at photograph of his allegedly “private” prayer practice:

Coach Joe Kennedy praying with students

(PHOTO: Former Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy prays with students after a 2015 football game. Credit: Court documents.)

Since he was first hired during the 2008 season, Kennedy maintained a practice of leading his football team in prayer, before and after games. After district officials learned of his practice during the 2015 season and directed him to stop it, Kennedy initially complied and instead delivered nonreligious motivational postgame speeches to his team and prayed alone on the football field after the students left the stadium. But soon Kennedy chose to alert the superintendent and the media that he intended to “continue” to offer an allegedly “private” prayer immediately after games, as he did on Oct. 16, 2015, as shown above, surrounded by players, coaches, other students, and members of media – in a very non-private setting.

And another thing the Religious Right gets wrong: Kennedy was not “fired” for praying. He was placed on administrative leave in 2015, after receiving multiple warnings, for defying the direct orders of the superintendent and creating a serious hazard at his school’s football game by drumming up so much media attention to this conflict that a literal stampede broke out on the field.

Importantly, the Bremerton School District offered Kennedy religious accommodations that would have allowed him to either pray on the field after the students left or pray anywhere else in the school without students or spectators. In other words, Bremerton officials offered to allow Kennedy to pray privately, as he allegedly desires. But rather than accept these accommodations, Kennedy chose not to reapply to be a coach. Instead, he filed a federal lawsuit against the school district, demanding to be permanently hired by the school district and permitted to lead his large and public postgame prayer gatherings.

In 2017, Americans United proudly supported the Bremerton School District’s defense of its students from Kennedy’s attempts to defy the Constitution when we filed a friend-of-the-court brief, joined by nearly a dozen religious and civil-rights organizations, in the 9th Circuit, and presented oral argument to that court.

We will continue to support school districts that choose to put their students’ rights to religious freedom first, and continue to fight in court against those like Kennedy who would try to use their positions of school authority to coerce students into believing what they believe and worshiping how they worship.