Yesterday, Americans United filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, telling the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a public school in Bremerton, Wash., had both the right and the obligation to take action when one of its coaches was discovered leading students in prayer.
Because officially sponsored religion in public schools divides school communities along religious lines and often leads to bullying and harassment of minority-faith and nonreligious students, school districts and their employees must remain neutral with respect to religion. In the brief, AU and allied groups argue that this is the only way to protect the constitutionally mandated religious freedom of all public school students.
For eight years, former Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy would kneel on the 50-yard line immediately after each game and pray with students on the football team. When the school district discovered this, the superintendent (himself a former coach) asked Kennedy to stop – asking that he wait till the students left before praying in the center of the field and offering him private locations at the school where he could pray instead. The School District understood that the public, high-profile nature of Kennedy’s prayer had the effect of pressuring students to participate and created the impression that the school district endorsed and favored Kennedy’s faith.
But Kennedy ignored the superintendent and continued his prayer practice, so he was placed on paid administrative leave. His contract as coach then expired normally at the end of the season, and he did not apply for reappointment.
Instead, he sued, arguing that the school district had violated his constitutional rights. He also took his case public and tried to portray himself as a victim, even drawing support from President-elect Donald Trump.
Trump doesn't get it: Public school officials have no right to pray with students.
Kennedy has fared less well in court. As the trial court determined, and as we have asked the court of appeals to affirm, it was the students’ constitutional rights that were violated here. Public school students have the right to go to school and participate in school athletic programs without being pressured, directly or indirectly, to participate in religious activity.
This all may sound familiar to followers of our work. It should: Several years ago, in the case of Borden v. School District, we defended a school district in East Brunswick, N.J., against a lawsuit by its football coach, who, like Kennedy, had held team prayers and wanted to continue his prayer ritual despite district officials telling him that the practice had to stop.
In that case, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with us that the coach’s conduct was unconstitutional, holding that the school district had the ability and indeed the obligation to forbid it.
As anyone who has attended high school knows, students are especially susceptible to social pressure, both from their teachers and coaches and from their classmates. When a coach – a role model and an authority figure – holds public prayer at school events, the social pressure to join in can be overwhelming: many students participate, whether or not they really want to and whether or not doing so is consistent with their own beliefs. The Constitution rightly prohibits public schools from putting that sort of pressure on schoolchildren.
Our work on the New Jersey case not only prepared us to support the school district and students in Bremerton but also served as a strong reminder about why it is so important for the public schools to remain neutral with respect to religion.
In East Brunswick, the coach’s prayer practice tore the school community apart. When students learned that two unnamed cheerleaders had complained about the team prayer, some assumed, incorrectly, that it must have been the two Jewish girls on the cheerleading squad who had complained. The rumor spread like wildfire, and the two girls were ridiculed, taunted, and bullied. Over just a single weekend, students posted hundreds of savage anti-Semitic attacks and threats against the girls on the school’s electronic bulletin board. As things spiraled further out of control, the virulent attacks spread, targeting other students based on race, sex and sexual orientation as well as religion.
This kind of “uproar” and “communal wrath” (in the words of one of the 3rd Circuit judges) is not unusual when minority-faith students and nonbelievers are forced to avoid school-sponsored religious practices. History has shown that school prayer and community infighting often go hand in hand. The Bremerton School District knew this, and it knew that telling its football coach not to pray with the team on the 50-yard line after games was the best way to protect all its students from the sort of harassment and abuse that erupted in East Brunswick and has similarly plagued so many other school districts across the country.
All students have the right to believe or not believe, to worship or not worship, as their conscience dictates. And parents have the right to direct their children’s religious upbringing. A responsible school district – a school district that follows the Constitution and takes seriously the religious freedom of all students and families – does not allow its employees to promote religion at school functions. That’s just not the job of teachers, coaches, or any other public officials.
We at Americans United are the first to object when public schools sponsor and endorse prayer or other religious practices. But it’s also important to acknowledge school districts and school officials who do the right thing. The Bremerton School District and its superintendent were absolutely correct to stand up for the rights of their students; they don’t deserve to be sued for that. The trial court agreed, and the court of appeals should too. School districts across the country should follow the model that the Bremerton School District and its superintendent have set.