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 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.
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 15 seconds after the game to take a knee and silently thank God for his team when the players were not on the field.
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 silently and alone, he could be disciplined, up to and including being terminated from his job.
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.
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.
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 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.”
Oral arguments were held June 12, 2017 before the U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.
For Immediate Release: June 12, 2017
Contact: Abigail Doty, email@example.com
Cell: 469-237-9102, Direct: 469-440-7598
NINTH CIRCUIT TO HEAR ARGUMENTS OVER COACH KENNEDY’S POST-GAME, SILENT PRAYERS
Appeals court will review whether beloved football coach has constitutional right to silent religious expression
More info: CoachKennedyFacts.com
SEATTLE, Wash.—On Monday, June 12, at 9:00 a.m. (PST) attorneys with First Liberty Institute will present arguments to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit over whether Bremerton School District (“BSD”) may continue its religious discrimination against former Bremerton High School (“BHS”) coach Joe Kennedy’s brief, silent religious expression.
Background: Coach Joe Kennedy was the head coach of the BHS junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team. Beginning with his first football game as a coach, in 2008, Kennedy waited until the game had ended and the players had cleared the field. He then walked on the field, took a knee, and silently thanked God for his players and the opportunity to coach them. He continued this brief, silent religious expression for over seven years without complaint by students, coaches, or parents.
In October 2015, BSD instructed him to cease the religious practice, denied Coach Kennedy’s request for a religious accommodation, and ordered him to not only stop praying, but to refrain from any “demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to . . . students and the attending public.”
In 2016, Kennedy filed a lawsuit against BSD after the school district terminated him for offering a brief, quiet prayer on the field after high school football games. In the lawsuit, Coach Kennedy’s attorneys claimed BSD violated Kennedy’s First Amendment rights. Kennedy’s legal team sought to have him reinstated as a coach, but a federal district court judge ruled against him. On October 3, 2016, Coach Kennedy appealed the district court judge’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Coach Kennedy does not seek money damages, but simply hopes to return to the sidelines to coach his players.
WHAT: Oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Appeal No. 16-35801.
WHO: Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel of First Liberty Institute, and Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel of First Liberty Institute, will be available for comment immediately following oral arguments. (On site contact: Mike Berry).
WHEN: Monday, June 12, 2017, immediately following oral arguments.
WHERE: United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, William K. Nakamura Courthouse, 1010 Fifth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104.
Quote from Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel of First Liberty Institute:
“We are committed to protecting Coach Kennedy’s right to religious freedom. If the Constitution protects the right of a football coach to kneel in protest, it should certainly protect the right of a football coach to kneel in silent prayer. We hope the court will allow a great coach to be reunited with his players at Bremerton High. The First Amendment guarantees Coach Kennedy’s right to freely exercise his religion.”
Quote from Coach Joe Kennedy:
“I am grateful for the opportunity to have the court review this case. I fought in the Marines for our freedom. I never though I’d have to go to court to protect my own. My hope is that, at the end of the day, the court will let me get back to the sidelines and back with my team.”
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 Abigail Doty at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 469-440- 7598 (office) or 469-237-9102 (cell).
To download this press release, please click here.
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