What’s At Stake:
No child attending public school should have to pray to play in school sports. No students should ever be made to feel excluded – whether it’s in the classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.
The Bremerton School District did the right thing by protecting students’ rights and religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games.
The Supreme Court shouldn’t fall for what a Ninth Circuit judge recognized as the “deceitful narrative” from the coach’s attorneys.
For more than seven years, Joseph Kennedy, a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, delivered prayers to students on the 50-yard line immediately after games. When the Bremerton School District learned what Kennedy was doing, it sought to accommodate his religious beliefs by offering him time and space to pray before and after games where students would not feel coerced to participate. But Kennedy refused, insisting instead that he must be allowed to continue having the midfield prayers with students at games. After he announced to the media his plan to continue having the prayers, community members stormed the field to join him after the game, knocking over some students in the process. The School District was thus left with no choice but to place him on paid administrative leave. And instead of reapplying to be a coach the next year, as all coaches were required to do every spring, Kennedy sued the School District in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.
After both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied Kennedy’s motion for a preliminary injunction, the Supreme Court denied review, but some of the Justices expressed possible future interest in the case. The case then went back to the district court, which denied Kennedy’s claims, granting summary judgment in favor of the School District. On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, Americans United filed an amicus brief on behalf of a wide array of religious and civil-rights organizations, and Americans United’s Vice President and Legal Director Richard Katskee delivered oral argument before the Ninth Circuit in support of the School District. A panel of the Ninth Circuit again ruled for the School District. Americans United then began representing the school district, along with Michael B. Tierney of Tierney, Correa & Zeinemann, P.C., and successfully defeated the coach’s request for further review by the entire Ninth Circuit.
Kennedy then sought Supreme Court review a second time. In early December, 2021, we filed the School District’s opposition to Kennedy’s petition for review. In that brief, we explained that Kennedy’s insistence to the Court that he was fired for private prayer is false; rather, he was placed on leave after he refused to stop having public prayer that coerced students and families. We also explained that for the Supreme Court to reverse the judgment of the lower courts, it would have to rewrite decades of settled law on what constitutes government speech and what amounts to a church-state violation.
The Supreme Court announced on January 14, 2022, that it would take the case. Americans United filed its merits brief with the Court in late March. On April 25, 2022, AU Legal Director Richard Katskee delivered oral argument at the Court. We expect a decision by the end of June.