UPDATES DONATE

“We’ll Fight To The Supreme Court”

Meet Joe Kennedy

Kennedy was head coach for the Bremerton High School junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team. Before he even coached his first game, this Marine Corps veteran turned football coach made a commitment to God that he would give thanks after every game—win or lose—for the opportunity to be a football coach and for his players.

So after his very first football game in 2008, Coach Kennedy waited until the players cleared the field, then took a knee and silently thanked God for his players. Coach Kennedy continued doing this after every game for seven years and no students, coaches or parents ever complained about it. In fact, it was a compliment that started the problems.

The School District Bans Prayer

After receiving a compliment from a school administrator about how they were grateful for Coach Kennedy’s leadership and great example for the team through his prayers, Bremerton High School responded with a demand letter to the coach threatening his fundamental right to free speech and religious exercise. On September 17, 2015, the Bremerton School District superintendent sent Kennedy an official letter from the school district, telling him that he must stop praying after the games.

In response, First Liberty sent the school district a letter on October 14, 2015 explaining that teachers and administrators do not lose their private rights to express their religious beliefs upon entering the schoolhouse—or the football field.

In the letter, First Liberty attorneys said: 

No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state. Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged in private religious expression upon which the state may not infringe. In fact, any attempt by Bremerton School District to ban or prohibit Coach Kennedy—or any private citizen—from praying violates the First Amendment. (Read the full letter)

First Liberty asked the school to make a religious accommodation that would allow Coach Kennedy to take 15 seconds after the game to take a knee and silently thank God for his team when the players were not on the field.

But the school district refused to give him even 15-seconds of silent prayer.

The school district said any perceived violations of their policy “cannot be tolerated.” They ordered Coach Kennedy to stop praying after the game and then sent a letter to Coach Kennedy announcing that he was suspended and may not “participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities.” The district suspended Coach Kennedy the day before the final varsity football game of the season and refused to renew his contract, resulting in the termination of his coaching career.

First Liberty Files Complaint with EEOC

On December 15, Coach Kennedy filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Bremerton School District.

In the charge, Coach Kennedy said, “[Bremerton School District] violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression.”

In response to Coach Kennedy’s EEOC complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a right-to-sue letter to Coach Kennedy on June 27.

First Liberty Files Lawsuit Against Bremerton School District

On August 9, 2016 First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District.

“Bremerton School District violated Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise, as well as his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion,” said Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at First Liberty.

A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit and First Liberty filed an appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Ninth Circuit Approves of Coach Kennedy’s Termination

Two months later, on August 23, the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling against Coach Kennedy. The court argued that Coach Kennedy’s prayers were not protected by the Constitution because, according to the Ninth Circuit, Coach Kennedy was praying as a public employee rather than in his private, personal capacity.

“Banning all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen is wrong,” First Liberty President and CEO Kelly Shackelford said in a press release. “This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”

“According to the Ninth Circuit, a school district can fire a coach for making the sign of the cross or bowing his head in prayer when a player gets hurt,” stated Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel to First Liberty. “We are deeply disappointed by the decision and will consider all options available to Coach Kennedy as we continue to review the opinion.”

A request for the full, en banc Ninth Circuit to re-hear the case was denied in early 2018.

“It is disappointing that the Ninth Circuit would refuse to hear Coach Kennedy’s case en banc, especially in light of the extreme, far-reaching opinion issued by the three-judge panel,” said Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty. “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.”

Attorneys with First Liberty say they will appeal Coach Kennedy’s case to the Supreme Court of the United States.

 

Press Release
For Immediate Release: January 25, 2018

Contact: Lacey McNiel, lmcniel@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

Ninth Circuit: Coach Kennedy Doesn’t Have a Prayer

Coach Kennedy to seek U.S. Supreme Court review of school district’s decision to fire him because of his silent 15-second prayer.


SEATTLE, Wash.—Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit denied football coach Joe Kennedy’s request for a hearing en banc. Attorneys with First Liberty Institute represent Coach Kennedy.

“It is disappointing that the Ninth Circuit would refuse to hear Coach Kennedy’s case en banc, especially in light of the extreme, far-reaching opinion issued by the three-judge panel,” said Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty. “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.” 

In August, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit held that a school district in Washington state could fire Coach Kennedy because he silently prayed alone for 15 to 30 seconds following football games.

“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. “We will keep fighting on behalf of Coach Kennedy until his religious liberties are fully restored, including appealing this case to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Coach Kennedy’s case has received national attention and support from political and religious leaders, including President Trump and Franklin Graham, as well as former NFL players Steve Largent, and Chad Hennings.

To learn more about the case, visit CoachKennedyFacts.com.

###

About First Liberty Institute First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel, lmcniel@firstliberty.org, Direct: 972-941-4453.

To download this press release, please click here.


Press Releases

First Liberty Press Release – 9/21/2017

First Liberty Press Release – 8/23/2017

First Liberty Press Release – 11/8/2016

First Liberty Press Release – 8/9/2016

First Liberty Press Release – 10/26/15

Take Action
Sign_RED Give_RED
Learn_RED Listen_RED