November 2020 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A public school football coach in Washington state has no right to engage in religious activity with students, Americans United has told a federal appeals court.  

The case concerns Joe Kennedy, an assistant coach in the Bremerton School District who had a habit of praying with players and students at the 50-yard line after games. The Bremerton School District recognized the coach was violating the religious freedom of impressionable students, who might feel they had no choice but to pray to play, and told Kennedy to stop. 

Kennedy has lost repeatedly in court, but he has refused to give up. Backed by the Christian nationalist legal group First Liberty, Kennedy is back in court. His case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is pending before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.  

In late September, Americans Uni­ted was joined by 17 interfaith and religious freedom organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the school district’s decision to stop the coach from praying with students.  

The brief outlines the risk to students if the coach’s prayers were allowed to continue.  

“Though Kennedy’s intent was undoubtedly benign, his practice of praying on the 50-yard line immediately after games, reinforced by his eight-year history of leading team prayers and giving on-field religious speeches, sent an unmistakable message to the players and other students that they ought to participate,” says the brief. “For those who did not join risked being marked as outsiders who do not fully share in the life of the school community, making them potential targets for bullying, harassment, and social ostracism.”  

While the courts have so far agreed with the district and protected the religious freedom of Bremerton’s students, the current vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court is looming over this and many other cases involving church-state separation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of church-state separation. President Donald Trump’s appointee Amy Coney Barrett, on the other hand, has a record that shows she’s hostile to church-state separation – including when it comes to public school students’ rights.

When the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review Kennedy’s case in 2019, four of the court’s more conservative justices indicated they didn’t necessarily agree that teachers and coaches at public school districts can’t proselytize schoolchildren. Attached to the one-sentence order denying the coach’s petition was a four-page statement written by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh that signaled they are interested in reviewing the issue. 

Alito wrote that he thought the coach’s case shouldn’t be reviewed because “factual questions” remained to be resolved by the lower courts, not because he agreed with the lower court’s decision.  

“While I thus concur in the denial of the present petition, the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future,” Alito asserted.

Writing on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, Liz Hayes, AU’s assistant director of communications, observed, “Public schools must be inclusive places that welcome all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. And parents must be secure in the knowledge that they can send their children to school without fear that their kids will be coerced to participate in prayers or other religious activities.”