September 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A high school football coach in Washington state who says he has a right to pray with students on the field after games has lost in court again.

The entire 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted in July to uphold a lower court ruling against Joe Kennedy, a coach at Bremerton High School. Kennedy’s case has been in the courts for years. He insists that he should have the right to pray with students at midfield. School officials say his actions could be seen as coercive.

“The Ninth Circuit made the right call: The Bremerton School District was correct to protect the religious freedom of its students and their families,” Richard B. Katskee, vice president and legal director for Americans United, told the media. “The Constitution requires public schools to provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students. That includes ensuring that student-athletes don’t feel compelled to pray or participate in religious activities to secure their place on a team.” (AU is representing the district in court.)

Kennedy engaged in silent prayers after games for several years without incident. But a few years ago, he began vocally praying at midfield and inviting players from his own team and opposing teams to join in. School officials offered Ken­nedy a private place to pray, but he insisted on doing it on the field. At that point, officials in the Bremerton district told him to stop.

Kennedy was defiant and engaged in a high-profile media campaign, engineered in part by First Liberty Institute, a Christian nationalist legal group that sponsors Kennedy’s lawsuit.

First Liberty has vowed to appeal Kennedy’s case to the Supreme Court. It may find a sympathetic hearing there. Four justices – Sam­uel A. Alito, Clarence M. Thomas, Brett M. Kavanaugh and Neil M. Gorsuch – expressed support for Ken­nedy’s position when the case reached the court in 2019. At that point, the high court sent the matter down to a lower court for more information.

Katskee said the Supreme Court should take a pass on the matter.

Noting that this question is settled law, Katskee observed, “The Supreme Court certainly shouldn’t have any stomach for undermining the religious freedom of the students and their families.” (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District)