Until this spring, Joe 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 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 he walked to the fifty-yard line, took a knee, and thanked God for his players. Coach Kennedy continued doing this for 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.
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, out of fear of a possible violation of the Establishment Clause.
October 14: First Liberty Responds
In response, First Liberty sent the school district a letter on October 14, 2015. Delving into details of multiple court cases, First Liberty explained 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 thirty seconds after the game to take a knee at the fifty-yard line and quietly thank God for his players when the players were not on the field.
October 16: School Forbids Coach Kennedy from Praying on Homecoming Day
In a letter on October 16, just hours before homecoming game time, Bremerton School District’s lawyers said they largely agree with First Liberty’s legal analysis, which guarantees Coach Kennedy’s right to pray after football games. However, due to their concern about “potential liability,” they said any perceived violations of their policy “cannot be tolerated.” They ordered Coach Kennedy to stop praying after the game, or even bowing his head.
First Liberty attorneys replied with an email to the school district, saying, “If the school is concerned that the coach’s prayer may be interpreted as government speech, there is an easy solution: the school district can simply say that the coach’s prayer is his own speech. Then they should stand back and let him pray.”
October 23: School District Denies Coach Kennedy’s Request for Religious Accommodation
On Friday, October 23, Bremerton School District sent a letter to Coach Kennedy denying his request for religious accommodation. The school district said if Coach Kennedy prays after football games, even quietly and alone, he could be disciplined, up to and including being terminated from his job.
October 28: School District Suspends Coach Kennedy
On October 28, the Bremerton School District 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.
December 15: 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.
August 9, 2016: First Liberty Files Lawsuit Against Bremerton School District
On August 9, First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District. (Read the lawsuit)
“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.
In the lawsuit, Coach Kennedy did not to request any compensation from the school district.
“Coach Kennedy declined to seek monetary damages,” Berry said. “Instead, all he wants is for the court to say he has a right to pray, that the school district violated the law by firing him, and for the school to give him his job back so he can continue coaching the kids.”
For Immediate Release: November 8, 2016
Contact: Kassie Dulin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Cell: 214-542-4334, Direct: 972-941-4575
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACHES TO COURT: IF WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO KNEEL TO PROTEST INJUSTICE, COACH KENNEDY HAS THE RIGHT TO KNEEL IN PRAYER
NFL players and high school football coaches file briefs in support of Coach Kennedy at the Ninth Circuit
Tacoma, Wash. – Two high-profile amicus briefs were filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals on Monday evening on behalf of Coach Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach who was fired for taking a knee at the fifty-yard line and offering a brief, private prayer after high school football games.
One of the briefs is on behalf of two football coaches at Garfield High School in Seattle. Coaches Kellen Alley and Joseph Thomas gained national media attention when they joined their team in kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice. In their brief, the coaches ask the court to affirm that the First Amendment protects the rights of public employees—including football coaches—to private expression. Read the brief
“If the Constitution protects the right of a football coach to kneel to protest injustice, it certainly protects the right of a football coach to kneel in prayer,” Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute, the law firm defending Coach Kennedy, says.
The second brief is by two NFL players: Steve Largent, a retired Seattle Seahawk and member of the NFL Hall of Fame, and Chad Hennings, a retired Dallas Cowboy and three-time Super Bowl champion. In the brief, the former NFL stars recall how football coaches were a positive influence on their lives. They contend that Bremerton ISD’s actions unnecessarily restrict free speech and impair coaches’ ability to serve as role models and mentors to their students. They ask the court to rule in Coach Kennedy’s favor so he can resume coaching his players. Read the brief
“Whether you are liberal or conservative, whether you are a person of devout faith or no faith at all, we should all seek to defend the right to free speech,” Berry says. “It’s central to our American identity as a diverse, pluralistic society, where we foster the free exchange of ideas.”
Kennedy filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District (BSD) after the school district terminated him for offering a brief, private, and quiet prayer at the fifty-yard line after high school football games. In the lawsuit, Coach Kennedy’s attorneys claimed BSD violated Kennedy’s First Amendment rights.
Coach Kennedy is represented by the national non-profit law firm First Liberty Institute, as well as Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Oldfield & Helsdon, PLLC, and attorney Anthony J. Ferate.
Read more and view legal documents at CoachKennedyFacts.com
About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
To arrange an interview, contact Kassie Dulin, Director of Legal Communications for First Liberty Institute. Email: email@example.com, Direct: 972-941-9575, Cell: 214-542-4334.
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Download this press release here.