By Chris Henry / Kitsap Sun
BREMERTON — Former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy will see some movement Monday in his religious liberty suit against Bremerton School District.
Kennedy claims the district in 2015 wrongfully barred him from praying on the field after football games and retaliated against him for violating the ban. Oral arguments from both sides in the case will be heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to have Coach Kennedy have his day in court to have his arguments heard,” said Mike Berry of First Liberty law firm, Kennedy’s lead attorney. “We’re hopeful for a favorable outcome.”
Joining the case on behalf of the school district is a coalition of groups led by Americans United for Separation of Church and State. The coalition includes a dozen organizations — some affiliated with Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism — that argue religious education of children is a matter best left to families and houses of worship.
Kennedy’s cause is also being supported by many legal allies, including former Seahawk Steve Largent, who argue Kennedy’s right to free speech was violated.
Other “friend of the court” briefs filed on Kennedy’s behalf came from former Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Chad Hennings and an attorney for two Garfield High School football coaches, who joined their players in September in a pregame demonstration to support the Black Lives Matter movement.
School district officials in September 2015 became aware that Kennedy had been participating in and often leading prayer with students before and after games. Superintendent Aaron Leavell issued a letter to all district employees clarifying that while students can pray publicly at school, employees must refrain from doing so. The school district’s policy is based on the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits establishment of a government sanctioned religion.
Kennedy initially abided by the district’s edict, but after the game on Oct. 16, 2015, he walked onto the field and knelt in prayer. He was immediately joined by a swarm of players and others. The district placed him on paid leave and did not renew his contract in 2016.
Kennedy’s legal team in October 2016 appealed a ruling in U.S. District Court of Western Washington, bumping the case up to federal court. The district court denied Kennedy’s request for a court order requiring the Bremerton School District to reinstate him as a coach while his case was making its way through the courts.
Kennedy and his legal team argue that his postgame prayer did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s provision for the separation of church and state, since the prayer occurred after the game concluded. The district argues that Kennedy was still on duty as a coach until students had left the field and gone home.
Andrew Nellis of Americans United for Separation of Church and State will argue to the court that while students in public schools have the right to openly pray on school grounds, school employees hold positions of authority over students so are enjoined from public display of religious practices.
“Students at public schools should have the right to practice their own faith without being pressured to join in a religious practice that’s not their own,” Nellis said. “What was going on, he was creating an inherently coercive environment for students on the football team and in the school.”
Both Americans United and First Liberty have been party to other high-profile religious liberty cases, arguing from opposing positions.
Bremerton School District’s attorney was not available for comment.