Appeals court again rejects former Bremerton Coach Kennedy's lawsuit over prayer at football games

Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy was fired after he refused to stop praying at midfield after games on public school grounds.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit again held that the Bremerton School District can ban former coach Joe Kennedy from praying on the field after football games.

A three-judge panel released the decision, written by Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr., on Thursday.

"Kennedy’s attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to the District showed that he was not engaging in private prayer. Instead, he was engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties," Judge Milan wrote. "The District tried to accommodate Kennedy, but that was spurned by Kennedy insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, potentially surrounded by students. The panel held that the district court correctly granted summary judgment to the District on Kennedy’s free speech and free exercise claims."

Attorneys representing Kennedy said they plan to appeal the court's latest decision. Since the Lower Courts again rejected the appeal, the issue could make its way back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Kennedy had previously led players in postgame prayers, but the Bremerton School District ordered him to stop in 2015, saying the practice violated the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution. He lost his job after he defied the ban.

The Liberty Institute, the Texas-based law firm that’s representing Kennedy, claims the district violated his right to free speech and free exercise of religion. The original lawsuit filed in federal court in Tacoma claimed the district violated his rights under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In 2016, a U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma declined to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Kennedy. He was asking the court to have the school district immediately rehire him.

In 2017, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Kennedy took advantage of his position when he prayed on the field after games, and he was not entitled to immediately get his job back.

In 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case. Four conservative justices at the time said they were interested in the case and the legal issues it raises. The lower courts rejected Kennedy's claim that the school district violated his free speech rights by putting him on paid leave after he continued to pray at midfield following games.

In 2020, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton ruled in favor of the Bremerton School District's motion for summary judgment. Kennedy's lawyers appealed.

Coach Kennedy kneeling at the fifty-yard line on the Bremerton High School football field. Photo credit: First Liberty Institute

The case has drawn broad national attention, including when former President Donald Trump featured Kennedy at a campaign event in Virginia in October of 2016.

Student leaders also invited Seattle Satanists to attend a game in what they described as an effort to get the school district to clarify its policy.

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