Coach Kennedy | Cases | First Liberty

Reset the Game Clock

New Pathway to Victory for Coach Kennedy

In January 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review Kennedy’s case, but four of the justices sent a clear message – there’s a real problem here that needs to be fixed.

Although the Court declined to reverse the decision at this time, in a statement filed by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, the justices explained that the Court needs more information in order to resolve the matter.

The four justices also added, “the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”

Attorneys with First Liberty Institute and Kirkland & Ellis LLP are preparing to return to the district court in order to resolve the issues the Supreme Court identified.

Case History

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. 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.

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 Legal Action

Coach Kennedy filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Bremerton School District. In response to Coach Kennedy’s EEOC complaint, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a right-to-sue letter to Coach Kennedy and First Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District.

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

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.

Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Appeal, But Gives Hope

Attorneys for First Liberty Institute and Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court asking the court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision.  While the Supreme Court decided to not grant the appeal, four justices – Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – expressed serious concern with the Ninth’s decision.  The justices state, “If this case were before us as an appeal within our mandatory jurisdiction, our clear obligation would be to vacate the decision below….”

“The Supreme Court seems to understand that 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 are eager to return to the District Court, answer the questions the justices raised today, and give the Court another opportunity to protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.”

Press Release
For Immediate Release: January 22, 2019

Contact: Lacey McNiel, lmcniel@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

HALFTIME: U.S. Supreme Court Declines First Opportunity to Review Decision Preventing Coach from Taking a Knee

Justices explain that the Court needs more information in order to resolve the dispute over a coach’s silent 15-second, post-game prayer


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Today, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that, at this time, it is not going to review the appeal in the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, in which attorneys for First Liberty Institute and Kirkland & Ellis LLP represent Coach Joe Kennedy. Although the Court declined to reverse the decision at this time, in a separate statement filed by Justice Alito and joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, the justices explained that the Court needs more information in order to resolve the matter. As the four justices wrote, “the Ninth Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.” The case continues, returning to the district court for further development.

“The Supreme Court seems to understand that 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 are eager to return to the District Court, answer the questions the justices raised today, and give the Court another opportunity to protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.”

Kennedy, a former high school football coach, asked the Court to reverse a lower court decision that allowed a school district to fire him because fans and students could see him take a knee in silent prayer after football games. Last year, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for 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. Coach Kennedy’s case has received national attention and support from political and religious leaders including President Trump and Franklin Graham, hall of fame football coach Bobby Bowden, and former NFL players Steve Largent, and Chad Hennings.

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

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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 – 6/25/2018.

First Liberty Press Release – 1/25/2018

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

1/22/19 – Supreme Court Denial of Cert Statement

8/1/18 – Amicus Brief by The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, National Association of Evangelicals, Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, Concerned Women for America, National Legal Foundation, Pacific Justice Institute, and International Conference of EvangelicalChaplain Endorsers

8/1/18 – Amicus Brief by Robert Cleckler Bowden

8/1/18 – Amicus Brief by Members of Congress

8/1/18 – Amicus Brief by The Texas High School Coaches Association

8/1/18 – Amicus Brief by States of Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, Sough Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin

6/25/18 – Amicus Brief by Foundation for Moral Law

6/25/2018 – Petition to the United States Supreme Court

6/25/2018 – Appendix: Petition to U.S. Supreme Court

1/25/18 – Order denying petition for en banc rehearing

9/21/17 – Petition for en banc rehearing

8/23/17 – Opinion of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

11/08/16 – Amicus Brief at Ninth Circuit by Seattle High School Football Coaches Thomas and Alley

11/08/16 – Amicus Brief at Ninth Circuit by NFL Players Steve Largent and Chad Hennings

10/03/16 – Notice of Appeal to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

08/09/16 – First Liberty Files Lawsuit Against Bremerton School District

08/09/16 – Kennedy Complaint Appendix

12/15/15 – Kennedy EEOC Complaint (Redacted)

10/28/15 – Bremerton School District Suspension Statement

10/27/15 – 47 Congress Members Support Coach Kennedy

10/23/15 – Bremerton School District Denial of Request for Religious Accommodation

10/16/15 – First Liberty’s Email Response to Bremerton School District

10/16/15 – Bremerton School District Response Letter

10/14/15 – First Liberty Institute Demand Letter to Bremerton to School District

09/17/15 – Demand Letter from Bremerton School District to Coach Kennedy

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To The American Legion:

As a grateful citizen, I support your effort to honor those who have fallen in battle and to keep the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial standing as a visible reminder of valor, sacrifice, endurance, and devotion.

Veterans memorials like the one in Bladensburg, MD are symbols reminding us of the sacrifice of our service members and the cost of war. Tearing down the Bladensburg Memorial would erase the memory of the 49 fallen heroes of Prince George’s County—like they never even existed.

We cannot allow the Bladensburg Memorial to be bulldozed.

Please know that you have my support and backing in your petition to the U.S. Supreme Court.