It will be a busy week for Americans United attorneys as they crisscross the country to stand up for religious freedom before federal appeals courts in two distinct cases.
Today, AU Legal Fellow Andrew Nellis will be in Seattle to tell the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals why it was unconstitutional for a high school football coach in Washington State to pray with students on the football field at the end of football games.
The appellate court will hear arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case involving former coach Joseph Kennedy, who ignored the school district superintendent’s request to stop praying with students on the 50-yard line after games. Bremerton officials understood that the public, high-profile nature of Kennedy’s prayers had the effect of pressuring students to participate and created the impression that the school district endorsed and favored Kennedy’s faith.
Kennedy was placed on paid leave after he refused to stop praying with the students, and he did not re-apply for his coaching job when his contract expired. Instead, he sued the district, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated.
A trial court determined, and AU has asked the court of appeals to affirm, that it was the students’ constitutional rights that were violated, not the coach’s. 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.
“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,” Nellis wrote previously on our “Wall of Separation” blog. He referenced an earlier, similar case – Borden v. School District of East Brunswick – in which AU represented a New Jersey school district when a football coach refused to stop leading prayers with students. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in our favor, but not before the issue tore the community apart and resulted in savage hate speech being directed at students based on their religion, race, sex and sexual orientation.
Preventing that type of divisiveness and protecting religious freedom for all is why AU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Kennedy v. Bremerton and why we’ll join the school district’s attorney in arguing before the 9th Circuit today.
Americans United attorneys will stand up for religious freedom before two federal appeals courts this week.
On Wednesday, AU’s Legal Director Richard B. Katskee will argue before the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in Bormuth v. County of Jackson, a Michigan case involving legislative prayer.
Peter Bormuth filed the suit in opposition to the practice of Jackson County Commissioners opening their meetings by personally delivering exclusively Christian prayers and telling attendees to participate. When Bormuth objected, the commissioners singled him out for abuse; during a public meeting, one commissioner called him a “nitwit” while another called his lawsuit an attack “on us and, from my perspective, my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
A panel of three 6th Circuit judges ruled in Bormuth’s favor in February, concluding that the commissioners had put “one faith, Christianity, in a privileged position” and that their attacks on Bormuth signaled that “residents who refuse to participate in the prayers are disfavored.”
However, the full 6th Circuit vacated the panel’s ruling and ordered the case to be reheard before the entire bench of 15 judges, called an en banc hearing. Americans United was joined by the American Civil Liberties Union in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case and Katskee will join Bormuth, who is representing himself, in arguing that the commissioners’ practice is unconstitutional because the government body is showing favor for a specific religion and coercing citizens to participate in religious exercise.
These are just two of the many cases addressing a variety of church-state separation issues that AU’s Legal Department currently is tackling. To learn more about our work, visit au.org.