The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals dealt another blow to the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, Wednesday, ruling that coach Joe Kennedy could not take a knee by himself on the field after a football game, and offer a silent prayer. As reported on this site on August 26, 2016, “Kennedy had made a commitment that he would offer a silent prayer of thanksgiving to God after every game for his players, for the competition and for the opportunity to coach. There was no cajoling or coercing toward the players to participate. It was Kennedy’s personal commitment between him and his God.”
The court decision stated that as a “public employee,” Kennedy’s speech was not protected under the First Amendment.
Jeremy Dys, senior counsel, First Liberty Institute said, “Banning coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen by players and fans is wrong.”
Dys also said, “We’re reviewing the opinion. It takes a while to get through that and all the relevant law to figure out what the next options are for coach Kennedy. Then we’ve got to sit down face-to-face with the coach and tell him what his options may be.”
A decision to appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court has not been made at this time.
Asked if he feels like a decision like the one handed down Wednesday is going to be a trend wherein religious is continually attacked by the courts, Dys replied, “To say ‘it’s going to be’ I think is the wrong phrasing. I think it is a problem within the courts here. What this does is contributes further to the uncertainty faced by school teachers and coaches around the country as they try to lead their teams on the sports field.”
“What happens when a player goes down with an injury?” Dys asked. “Can the coach cross himself as a Catholic? Can he bow his head in prayer because a player is lying on the ground writhing in pain? Under this decision, I don’t think so.”
Kennedy was an assistant coach at Bremerton High School in Washington from 2008-2015. He would step to the 50-yard line and offer a prayer at the end of games. The prayer was :30 seconds in length or shorter.
According to a lawsuit filed on Kennedy’s behalf, the Bremerton School District, (BSD), had previously informed him that his prayer fully complied with its written policies on “Religious-Activities Policies and Practices.” Their policies at that time nowhere prohibited religious expression by on-duty school employees.
BSD also publicly affirmed that no players or students were required to pray with Kennedy, and that they had not fielded any complaints from parents, students or members of the community related to his praying in the eight years he had been coaching the team.
Ironically, it was after someone telling a member of the administration that they appreciated what Kennedy was doing, and that he was setting a good example, that the school district changed its rules and forbade all on-duty school employees from engaging in any demonstrable religious activity that is readily observable by the public and students.
Kennedy was subsequently suspended and then fired for failing to follow district policy.
Regarding the irony that it was after Kennedy was lauded for his actions that he was let go, Dys said, “The only people here who have ever been offended have been the school district that has directed to coach Kennedy to cease any visible demonstrations of religious activity.”
The new directive from BSD regarding religious expression apparently was selectively enforced against Kennedy, a Christian.
In an August 2016 post at the Daily Signal, it was reported that, according to Kennedy’s suit, assistant coach David Boynton “has engaged in a Buddhist chant near the 50-yard line at the conclusion of many BHS games,” and has continued to do so despite the suspension and firing of Kennedy.
The court decision also stated that while they recognize the important role that public worship plays in many communities, as does the sincere desire to include public prayer as a part of these occasions, they feel that such activity can promote disunity along religious lines, and risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all. Given Boynton’s being allowed to engage in a Buddhist chant with no repercussions, it would appear that the words “welcoming to all” do not include people of the Christian faith.
Dys said that people of faith need to remind one other that while this is a disappointing decision that will have far-reaching results, we do have religious liberty in this country.
Summarizing, Dys said, “The court here, the 9th Circuit, has now given their stamp of approval to a school district to stop its coach from praying silently for :15 seconds after a football game. That is what is offensive to the Constitution.”