Administrators at the Bremerton School District, a public school district in Bremerton, Wash., realized in 2015 that they had a problem. One of Bremerton High School’s football coaches, Joseph Kennedy, was going out to the 50-yard line at the end of games and leading students in prayer.
Still in his coaching uniform, with players from Bremerton and opposing teams joining in and in front of a stadium full of fans, the coach was organizing what amounted to prayer rallies as part of his job – and sending the message that the district unconstitutionally endorsed and favored his religious beliefs and practices.
Bremerton administrators recognized that the coach’s prayer practice was coercive and violated students’ religious freedom. Parents and students later told administrators that children were put in “awkward situations” because they “did not feel comfortable declining to join with the other players in Mr. Kennedy’s prayers.” They said their children “participated in the team prayers only because they did not wish to separate themselves from the team.” One parent said his son “felt compelled to participate, because even though he was an atheist, he felt he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”
Americans United believes that no children attending public school should feel that they have to pray to play school sports. No students should ever feel excluded – whether it’s in a classroom or on the football field – because they don’t share the religious beliefs of their coaches, teachers or fellow students.
The district did the right thing for its students and followed the law: It told the coach to stop leading students in prayer. District officials tried to accommodate the coach’s desire to pray at school in a way that would not violate students’ rights. Administrators offered him the time and space to pray, apart from students, before and after games. They offered him private locations at the school to pray. They offered to discuss other potential accommodations with him and invited him to suggest other workable solutions also.
But Kennedy and his attorneys spurned what Kennedy himself acknowledged were the district’s sincere and earnest attempts to accommodate his religious practices. Instead, he announced in the media that he would resume his on-field prayers immediately after games. And when he made good on that promise at the Homecoming game, a stampede of students, community members and media rushed the field to join him, knocking over students and creating an unsafe environment.
Bremerton administrators knew they had to put the rights and safety of students first. Kennedy left the district no choice but to place him on paid administrative leave. He did not re-apply for his coaching position when his contract expired at the end of the year; instead, he sued the school district.
This case, AU says, has never been about a school employee praying silently in private religious devotions. Rather, it has always been about protecting students who felt pressured by their coach to participate in public prayer, and a school district that wants to follow the law and do right by its students and their families.
The lower courts have consistently and repeatedly ruled in the district’s favor. One federal appeals court judge went so far as to call out the coach’s attorneys for the “deceitful narrative” they’ve presented. “Kennedy was never disciplined by BHS for offering silent, private prayers,” Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote when the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined Kennedy’s request to rehear the case last summer. “In fact, the record shows clearly that Kennedy initially offered silent, private prayers while on the job from the time he began working at BHS, but added an increasingly public and audible element to his prayers over the next approximately seven years before the Bremerton School District (BSD) leadership became aware that he had invited the players and a coach from another school to join him and his players in prayer at the fifty-yard line after the conclusion of a football game.”
“Context matters,” a 9th Circuit panel said in its majority opinion last March. “[A]t issue in this case is not, as Kennedy attempts to gloss it, a personal and private exercise of faith. At issue was – in every sense of the word – a demonstration, and, because Kennedy demanded that it take place immediately after the final whistle, it was a demonstration necessarily directed at students and the attending public.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear Kennedy’s case. But Justice Samuel A. Alito, joined by three other conservative justices, wrote a statement laying the groundwork for the coach’s lawyers to get his case before the court. The lawyers followed Alito’s playbook, and on Jan. 14, the court agreed to hear the case; arguments will occur in April.
Americans United has supported Bremerton School District all along, and last year we joined the district’s legal team. We’re urging the Supreme Court, in the words of AU President and CEO Rachel Laser, to “recognize that the Bremerton School District did the right thing to protect the religious freedom, and ultimately the safety, of children.”
Americans United is proud to represent this public school district that understands that schoolchildren and their families – like all of us – have a constitutional right to religious freedom, to believe as they choose and be treated equally by their public schools, regardless of those beliefs. Church-state separation is the foundational principle that protects religious freedom for everyone, and we’re always working to defend this vital constitutional shield.
“The Bremerton School District followed the law and protected students’ religious freedom when it stopped its football coach from holding coercive prayers with players on the 50-yard line after high school football games,” AU’s Laser said in a statement to the media. “The lower courts have repeatedly ruled in the school district’s favor, and the Supreme Court should likewise recognize that the Bremerton School District did the right thing to protect the religious freedom, and ultimately the safety, of children.”