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: August 9, 2016
Contact: Kassie Dulin, email@example.com
Cell: 214-542-4334, Direct: 972-941-4575
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL COACH FILES LAWSUIT AGAINST SCHOOL DISTRICT THAT FIRED HIM FOR PRAYING
Coach Joe Kennedy, suspended by Bremerton School District (BSD) for silently praying after football games, files a lawsuit against the school district, alleging religious discrimination
Bremerton, Wash. – Today, former high school football coach Joe Kennedy filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District (BSD) after the school district terminated him for offering a brief, quiet prayer at the fifty-yard line after high school football games.
Read the lawsuit at CoachKennedyFacts.com.
In the lawsuit, Coach Kennedy’s attorneys said, “Bremerton School District’s actions violate 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.” In the complaint, Coach Kennedy declined to seek monetary damages and instead simply requested that the school reinstate him so he can continue coaching the kids.
“When the school district fired me, I was devastated,” Coach Kennedy says. “I really hope that the school district will give me my job back so I can get back to doing what I love most: coaching my players.”
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.
“Citizens who work for government are not banned from praying. That’s not the law. That’s religious hostility and discrimination,” Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute, says. “All we are asking is for Coach Kennedy to be reinstated and for the school to allow him to continue to pray alone at the fifty-yard line after the game.”
“The First Amendment guarantees Coach Kennedy’s rights to free speech and free exercise of his religion,” Rebekah Ricketts, attorney at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, says. “We fully expect those constitutional rights to be vindicated when Coach Kennedy gets his day in court.”
“As a student at Bremerton High School, I was taught the importance of Constitutional Rights; the school district, by act, has specifically devalued Coach Kennedy’s,” attorney and Bremerton High School alumni Anthony J. Ferate added. “It’s time for Coach to be allowed to get back to serving as a positive role model to students in Bremerton.”
Coach Kennedy filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Bremerton School District in December. On June 27, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a right-to-sue letter to Coach Kennedy.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org, Direct: 972-941-9575, Cell: 214-542-4334.
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