U.S. Ninth Circuit - The FindLaw 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries Blog

High School Football Coach Loses Prayer Case

How about a Hail Mary?

It's a traditional football pass, but a prayer on the field is going too far. At least, that's what the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

"Striking an appropriate balance between ensuring the right to free speech and avoiding the endorsement of a state religion has never been easy," wrote Judge Milan Smith, Jr.

It was difficult decision because the court had to consider the right of a popular football coach to kneel at the 50-yard line and pray for his players after high school football games.

Bremerton High

Joseph Kennedy had prayed for his teams for seven years when he received a notice from the Bremerton School District in October 2015 that he had to stop.

"While the district appreciates Kennedy's many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action, Kennedy's conduct poses a genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others," the district said.

The controversy became part of the national debate on school prayer, as supporters and detractors huddled around Kennedy. Pictures appeared in various media, showing the coach in prayer surrounded by players and members of the public.

It became a legal matter after the school suspended him and he sued for religious discrimination. A rial court denied his request for a preliminary injunction, and the court of appeals affirmed.

Unprotected Speech

The court said the coach served as a role model and example, and that made him responsible to the district. It also changed the legal nature of his First Amendment rights.

By kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line after games while in view of students and parents, the court said, Kennedy was sending a message about his values and also the District's.

"Because such demonstrative communication fell well within the scope of Kennedy's professional obligations, the constitutional significance of Kennedy's job responsibilities is plain--he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech was therefore unprotected."

Kennedy told Fox News that his attorneys are considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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