The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled on August 23 that a school district in Washington state didn’t “retaliate against” a former football coach in violation of his First Amendment rights when it terminated his coaching contract after he refused to stop praying in public at games.
Bremerton High School football coach Joseph A Kennedy brought the case before the appellate court, saying that a district court’s order that the high school ban him from “kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line in view of students and parents immediately after BHS football games” should be stayed. He said the order (and the school) violated his civil rights under the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and the free speech clause.
But the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order, finding that Mr Kennedy was speaking as a public employee, not as a private citizen, when he would go out to the 50-yard line after games and kneel in prayer. Therefore, he’s not allowed to do that.
The Bremerton School District serves about 5,057 students, 332 teachers, and 400 nonteaching personnel, and it is a religiously diverse community. Students and teachers are practicing Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and followers of Zoroastrianism, among others. Mr Kennedy was employed as a football coach from 2008 to 2015, during which time he was trusted “to be a coach, mentor and role model for the student athletes.”
The school district sent him letters, saying that he was completely …
… free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities. Such activity must be physically separate from any student activity, and students may not be allowed to join such activity. In order to avoid the perception of endorsement discussed above, such activity should either be non-demonstrative (i.e., not outwardly discernible as religious activity) if students are also engaged in religious conduct, or it should occur while students are not engaging in such conduct.
… [W]hen you engaged in religious exercise immediately following the game on October 16, you were still on duty for the District. You were at the event, and on the field, under the game lights, in BHS-logoed attire, in front of an audience of event attendees, solely by virtue of your employment by the District. The field is not an open forum to which members of the public are invited following completion of games; but even if it were, you continued to have job responsibilities, including the supervision of players.