April 2020 Church & State Magazine - April 2020

Wash. Football Coach’s Religious Rights Were Not Violated, Federal Court Rules

  Wash. Football Coach’s Religious Rights Were Not Violated, Federal Court Rules

A former public high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., who asserted that his religious rights were violated after he was told to stop praying with players, has lost his case in court.

Joe Kennedy was placed on administrative leave in 2015 after he repeatedly ignored orders from school officials that he stop praying with students at mid-field after games. The following year, his contract as an assistant coach was not renewed. Kennedy maintains that he was fired as a form of retaliation, although three other assistant coaches were also not renewed at the same time.

The Kitsap Sun reported that things came to a head after an Oct. 16, 2015, game when Kennedy, who had been vocal about his plan to pray at mid-field, was joined by a crowd on the field. A melee ensured, and some band members and a cheerleader were knocked down.

The court ruled that public schools have the right to curb religious activity that could be perceived as school-sponsored.

“While public schools do not have unfettered discretion to restrict an employee’s religious speech, they do have the ability to prevent a coach from praying at the center of the football field immediately after games,” U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton wrote.

District officials argued that Kennedy had duties to tend to in the locker room after games, but they repeatedly tried to find Kennedy an accommodation that would allow him to pray privately. Kennedy ignored these attempts at a solution.

Kennedy is being represented in court by First Liberty Institute, a Religious Right legal group. Mike Berry, an attorney for the group, told the Sun that an appeal is planned. 

The case is Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

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