A former high school football coach who says he was fired for praying at the 50-yard line after every game is finally slated to get his day in court on Monday.
Joe Kennedy, a former coach at Bremerton School District in Bremerton, Washington, is suing the district in a closely watched religious liberty case that has captured national attention.
He claims his First Amendment rights were violated when he was punished for his post-game prayers. And, on Monday, oral arguments will be heard in the case, with both sides having the opportunity to tell the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle their side of the story, the Kidsap Sun reported.
Listen to Kennedy discuss the prayer dispute below:
The case has attracted involvement from prominent activist groups on both sides of the First Amendment divide, including conservative legal group First Liberty, which represents Kennedy, and First Amendment watchdog Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which will speak on behalf of the school district.
Kennedy — who coached Bremerton High School’s junior varsity team and was an assistant coach for the school’s varsity team — first came under fire in September 2015 when the district learned that he was leading prayers before and after games and responded by reminding staff that employees cannot pray publicly in schools, according to the Kitsap Sun.
The football coach was placed on leave after he reportedly defied that order and prayed on the 50-yard line after a football game — an act he had partaken in since he joined the district in 2008.
After his contract wasn’t renewed in 2016, Kennedy sued, arguing that the post-game prayer wasn’t a violation of the First Amendment because it unfolded after the game concluded and simply involved him walking to the 50-yard line, bowing and praying. The school district, though, feared that his prayers would spark legal ramifications.
“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action, Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the district said in a statement in October 2015, announcing Kennedy’s paid leave.
Kennedy has hoped throughout the case that he could be reinstated, telling “The Church Boys” podcast last year about his passion for working with the young men on the football team, as Deseret News reported.
“I want to be out there with my guys,” he said. “I want to be … coaching these young men on how to become better young men, and doing it through football.”
Kennedy’s lawsuit follows a complaint that he filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the nation’s agency responsible for handling employment discrimination cases, against the Bremerton School District. He was granted a right-to-sue letter by the federal government in June 2016 and proceeded to file, according to Deseret News.
The former coach also told “The Church Boys” that he felt God imploring him to go into coaching back in 2008 while watching the Christian movie “Facing the Giants.” After feeling God say, “This is your calling,” he committed himself to pray at the 50-yard line after every game and carried out that pledge.
And the powerful prayer gesture certainly made an impact, as it would often attract players from his team and the opposing team who would opt to join him on the 50-yard and pray alongside him.
It should be noted that Kennedy did hold locker room prayer as well, but he halted that practice when officials voiced concerns, as he said he wanted to be in compliance with the district’s policies and agreed that in might be problematic, legally speaking.
Read more about the controversy here.