A law firm is looking at the U.S. Supreme Court to affirm a fired football coach’s First Amendment right to bow his head in prayer, even if he is kneeling on a taxpayer-paid football field. A history of court rulings, however, have moved the other direction.
On Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit declined to rehear a three-judge panel's March decision that determined a public school district in Washington state had the legal right to prevent coach Joe Kennedy from praying after home football games.
The legal fight dates back to 2015, when Kennedy was instructed by the Bremerton School District to stop kneeling on the 50-yard line, a practice he had done for numerous football seasons without incident.
He took a knee despite the warning and was fired.
"We will appeal and are confident that the Supreme Court of the United States will right this wrong," responds attorney Jeff Mateer of First Liberty Institute, which is one of several law firms representing Kenndy.
This is not the first time the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to review the praying coach case. The high court declined an appeal in 2019, stating that more facts needed to be determined. In 2020, a U.S. District Court granted the school district's motion for summary judgment. The ruling was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which heard oral arguments in January.
Back in 2015, Kennedy was blasted by the school district’s superintendent, in a warning letter, because he led a pre-game locker room prayer and peppered his post-game pep talks with religious references.
“Your talks with students may not include religious express, including prayer," Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote at the time. "They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member."
“I'm being investigated,” Kennedy complained in 2015, “for thanking God for the opportunities that have been given me.”
A losing streak at high court
Public school grounds and public prayers have a bad history at the nation’s high court, which famously outlawed school-endorsed classroom prayers in a landmark 1962 decision. A ruling in 1992 ended graduation prayers led by clergy, and a Texas case in 2000 ended the practice of beginning football games with an official pre-game prayer.
Those landmark cases and others have been hailed by atheist legal groups as protecting the Establishment Clause.
Atheist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State is representing Bremerton School District in its legal fight.
A March press release from the group, when the 9th Circuit panel ruled against Kennedy, ironically claimed the court decision protected the “religious freedom” of students and their families.