Football Coach Kneeling to Pray is Denied Rehearing

As the Super Bowl approaches, battles continue in the football arena over kneeling. Last week, federal circuit court judges refused to reconsider their position that a high school coach had no right to pray on his own on the playing field after games, and now the case will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ironically spurred by an employee compliment rather than a complaint, Washington’s Bremerton School District chose to suspend and then release Coach Joe Kennedy for his very short and silent prayers. First Liberty Institute came to Kennedy’s defense, and, after the case escalated in the court system, a 3-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit approved the coach’s termination because he was acting as a “public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected.” The Ninth Circuit then refused a full panel (“en banc”) rehearing of the case last Thursday.

“Banning all coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty. Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty, added, “If this decision is allowed to stand, Jewish teachers can be fired for wearing a yarmulke in sight of students, Catholic teachers are at risk if they wear a crucifix, and Muslim teachers may face discrimination for wearing a hijab to work.”

Many have spoken up for Coach Kennedy, including President Donald Trump and Members of Congress. In 2015, Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and then-Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) spearheaded a letter that referenced the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court decision on public prayer and contended that the coach was in the right regardless of his status as school employee. “That others may choose to join him of their own free will is irrelevant, and an exercise of their own constitutional freedoms,” they said.

Former Rep. Steve Largent (R-Okla.), an NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver who played for the Seattle Seahawks, has also defended Kennedy. In a Seattle Times article at the beginning of this case, Largent expressed his admiration for such coaches who help young players like he once was. He added, “This is different from a coach proselytizing and requiring faith of a player. This is a model of a man that should be celebrated by the school district rather than told to hide who he is and what he believes.” Notably, Largent and Chad Hennings, a three-time Super Bowl champion, filed an official court brief in support of Kennedy.

  • More on this case is available from First Liberty here.

By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: February 2, 2018

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