Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy’s legal battle forges on, with Federal District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruling last Thursday that Kennedy’s silent kneeling in prayer on the 50-yard line after games is not protected by the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.
Kennedy and his legal team plan to appeal.
“We are disappointed in this decision, but we are undeterred in our mission to obtain justice for Coach Kennedy,” said Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute. “For almost five long years Joe has had to miss coaching the game he loves. Joe has fought—first as a U.S. Marine, then as a coach—to prove that every American has the right to engage in individual religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. He knows this fight isn’t over.”
In 2015, Kennedy was fired by Bremerton School District for kneeling on the 50-yard line after football games and silently praying for 15 to 20 seconds. Although players often participated, it was never mandatory.
“It was never a forced thing,” Kennedy said. “It was never even an asked thing.”
Kennedy sued in 2016, citing his right to religious expression under the First Amendment.
The school district argued that it has a right to restrict religious expression if it feels the expression creates an illusion of government endorsing religion.
Judge Leighton denied Kennedy’s request for an injunction in 2016, and in 2017 a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled against the coach.
Despite defeats in court, Kennedy’s case garnered nationwide media attention. In fact, President Trump invited Kennedy to the Oval Office in January 2019 as he announced new actions protecting prayer in U.S. public schools.
That same month, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, stating that the Court needed more information.
But Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh filed a separate statement expressing concern, writing, “The 9th Circuit’s understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future.”
Even so, the case returned to the district court, prompting Thursday’s decision.
Yet Kennedy is not planning to stand down.
“We are prepared to take Coach Kennedy’s case to the 9th Circuit,” Berry said, “… and if we have to, we’ll appeal that to the Supreme Court. We’ve done it once, we’re happy to do it again.”
Story updated at 3:40 p.m. EST, Mar. 9, to reflect new information from First Liberty Institute.
Photo: Courtesy of First Liberty Institute