In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case that Americans United will soon argue before the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a public school district, the lower courts repeatedly found that the facts in the case are clear: Some students felt coerced to join their football coach’s orchestrated public prayers on the 50-yard line immediately after football games.
But the coach’s lawyers tell a different tale: They keep saying he was fired for simply saying a quiet prayer by himself. It’s a deceitful narrative of what happened at this Washington State school district in 2015, and it’s part of a concerted effort to undermine church-state separation, the foundational principle that protects the religious freedom of students and all Americans.
AU has been calling out what 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. called a “false” narrative because we don’t want the court or anyone else to be misled by “six years of falsehood,” AU Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee told Supreme Court reporter Marcia Coyle, who noted in The National Law Journal this unusual public dispute over the facts in a case before the high court.
Let’s break down some of the facts vs. the fiction in this case:
Did the coach lead students in public prayer, or pray privately and quietly by himself?
FICTION: The coach’s lawyers allege that his prayers were “brief,” “quiet,” “personal,” “private,” and “by himself.”
FACT: See for yourself – do the pictures here and here show a coach praying quietly by himself? Nope. For seven years, the coach stood at midfield immediately after games, holding up the helmets from both teams, and delivered motivational prayers to the students, who kneeled around him. He invited opposing coaches to participate, and players from opposing teams often joined. The coach himself described his prayers as “audible” and involving students, and he demanded that students must be allowed to join.
Were students coerced to join the prayers?
FICTION: The coach’s lawyers allege that players joined in his prayer practice “voluntarily.”
FACT: The record shows the coach’s prayers had a coercive effect on his players. For example, the school district learned from a player’s father that his son felt “compelled to participate” because he feared that he otherwise “wouldn’t get to play as much.” Other players’ parents reported that their children had “participated in the team prayers only because they did not wish to separate themselves from the team.” Players and their parents thanked the school district for putting an end to “awkward situations where they did not feel comfortable declining to join with the other players in Mr. Kennedy’s prayers.”
Was the school district willing to accommodate the coach’s desire to pray?
FICTION: The coach’s lawyers claim the school district would allow him to pray only in a private location, “effectively banishing religious expression from public view.”
FACT: The school district tried repeatedly to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work. Bremerton officials said he could pray on his own, but that he could not deliver prayers to or pray with students during school activities, because that could cause “alienation” of “team member[s]” who did not wish to participate.
How did the coach’s employment with the district end?
FICTION: The coach’s lawyers repeatedly say that he “lost his job” because of his prayer practice, and conservative media often claim he was fired.
FACT: After he repeatedly defied the district’s request that he stop the public prayer rallies with students immediately after games, the coach was placed on paid administrative leave – accompanied by yet another offer from district officials to work with him to find a suitable accommodation for personal prayer. But he did not respond to that offer and remained on paid leave for the rest of the season, after which his standard one-year coaching contract expired. He chose not to reapply to coach the following year; instead, he sued the district.
The coach now lives 2,800 miles away – is the case moot?
FICTION: Being hired back as a coach – a job that provides a $5,300-per-year stipend and requires year-round, in-person duties – and being allowed to have public prayer on the 50-yard line are the only things the coach is asking from the court. His lawyers claim he’ll move back to Bremerton if he wins the case.
FACT: Due to family hardships and obligations, the coach sold his home in Bremerton, Wash., left his full-time job and moved to Pensacola, Fla., almost two years ago. He and his wife bought a house in Pensacola, registered to vote and call themselves “Floridians.” As Katskee noted to Coyle, “The Kennedys really did have good family reasons [to move]. That was the right thing to do. But you have to ask, do all those things make it more likely or less likely they’re going to turn around and be on the next plane to Bremerton? It doesn’t strike me as very plausible.”
Bottom line: This case is about a coach who violated the religious freedom of students by pressuring them to join his public prayers at the 50-yard line at public high school football games. Church-state separation means that no one should ever have to choose between their religious freedom and being part of the team.
That’s why our coalition of religious and nonreligious advocates is fighting back to protect students’, and everyone’s, First Amendment rights.
Have you or a public school student you know felt pressured to participate in religious activities or felt alienated because of your religion? Share your story and help us shine a light on why it’s critical that our public schools be inclusive to all students and ensure teachers and coaches are not promoting religion or compelling anyone to take part in religious activities.