Americans United in January filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the right of a Washington school district to take action against a football coach who was leading students in prayer.
Joseph Kennedy was removed from the coaching position he’d held for eight years after he defied Bremerton School District’s superintendent, who had told him to stop kneeling on the 50-yard line immediately after games and praying with student players. The school district understood the public, high-profile nature of Kennedy’s prayers had the effect of pressuring students to participate and created the impression the school district endorsed and favored Kennedy’s faith.
Kennedy was placed on paid leave and did not reapply for the job when his contract expired. Instead he sued the district, claiming it had violated his constitutional rights. After publicizing his case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, he drew the vocal support of President Donald Trump during the presidential campaign last year.
Trump made a reference to Kennedy during an early October speech in Virginia, telling a crowd, “The world is changing; you’re not allowed to pray before a football game. I thought it was horrible.”
AU was joined by 11 other organizations in asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to affirm a lower court’s ruling that it was the students’ constitutional rights that were violated, not Kennedy’s.
“A coach’s prayer practice thus has the effect of encouraging – indeed, compelling – impressionable students to engage in religious practices that may be contrary to their beliefs or their families’ convictions,” the brief reads.