May 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A football coach at a public high school in Washington state who wants to pray with students on the field has lost in court again.

The coach, Joseph Kennedy, has been fighting the Bremerton School District in court for years after district officials told him to stop praying with students after games. The officials offered to find a place for Kennedy to pray on his own, but he turned it down.

“The record before us and binding Supreme Court precedent compel the conclusion that [Bremerton School District] would have violated the Establishment Clause by allowing Kennedy to pray at the conclusion of football games, in the center of the field, with students who felt pressured to join him,” wrote Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. in the opinion. 

Rejecting Kennedy’s characterization of this case as about private prayer, the court pointed to his “pugilistic efforts to generate publicity in order to gain approval of those on-field religious activities.”

The court added: “Kennedy’s attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to BSD compels the conclusion that he was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties.”

The court went on to explain: “BSD tried to reach an accommodation for Kennedy,” including offering him many different options for him to pray before and after games while respecting students’ rights, but those efforts were “spurned by his insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, likely surrounded by students who felt pressured to join him.”

Americans United Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Kats­kee participated in oral arguments on Jan. 25 in support of the school district. AU, joined by 17 other religious freedom and interfaith organizations, also filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the court.

“Public schools must provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their religious beliefs,” Katskee said. “That includes ensuring that student athletes don’t feel compelled to pray or participate in religious activities to secure their place on a team.”

Katskee continued, “Americans United argued, and the court agreed, that the Bremerton School District did the right thing: It protected the religious freedom of all the students and their families. Americans United was proud to support the district’s efforts.”

Kennedy is being represented by First Liberty, a Christian nationalist legal group, which has vowed to appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.