Coach Kennedy | Cases | First Liberty

“We’ll Fight To The Supreme Court”

Attorneys for First Liberty Institute and Kirkland & Ellis LLP filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of former high school football coach Joe Kennedy, asking the nine Justices 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.

A copy of the petition can be found here.

“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 must protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.”

Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and First Liberty network attorney said “We hope the Supreme Court will review the Ninth Circuit’s decision. This is an important case that could determine whether teachers and coaches lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates.”

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.

Ninth Circuit Approves of Coach Kennedy’s Termination

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.

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 and Kirkland & Ellis LLP now turn to the Supreme Court of the United States in a final attempt for justice for Coach Kennedy.

Press Release
For Immediate Release: June 25, 2018

Contact: Lacey McNiel, lmcniel@firstliberty.org

Direct: 972-941-4453

Coach Kennedy to Supreme Court: Run Reverse on Ninth Circuit Decision Preventing Coach Taking a Knee

First Liberty attorneys ask Court to review school district’s decision to fire coach because of his silent 15-second prayer


WASHINGTON, D.C.—Attorneys for First Liberty Institute and Kirkland & Ellis LLP today filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of former high school football coach Joe Kennedy, asking the nine Justices 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.

A copy of the petition can be found here.

“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 must protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired.”

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, and former NFL players Steve Largent, and Chad Hennings.

Paul Clement, former U.S. Solicitor General, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP and First Liberty network attorney, said, “We hope the Supreme Court will review the Ninth Circuit’s decision. This is an important case that could determine whether teachers and coaches lose their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gates.”

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 – 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

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.

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