Mar 18, 2021

Americans United for Separation of Church and State applauded today’s opinion by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. The court ruled that Bremerton School District in Washington State protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped high school football coach Joseph Kennedy from leading students in prayer on the football field immediately after games.

“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 an amicus brief with the court.

Katskee issued the following statement in response to today’s opinion:

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

“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.”

Americans United is a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, AU educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom. Learn more at