Joe Kennedy, a former coach at the Bremerton School District in Bremerton, Washington, sat in a federal courtroom on Monday and silently watched as both sides argued over the legality of his firing for refusing to stop praying at the 50-yard line after football games.
It’s a case that has attracted a fair amount of attention over the past two years, with critics doubling down on either side of the First Amendment divide. Were his prayers private and constitutionally protected — or had he crossed the line? Those are the central questions that were tackled in the courtroom.
Kennedy’s attorneys argued before a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that the former coach’s prayers were private and held after football games concluded and were, thus, entirely legal.
But Michael Tierney, a lawyer for the district, countered that Kennedy’s prayers were a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, decrying pressures that prayers like Kennedy’s could put on students, the Kitsap Sun reported.
The judges asked a variety of questions surrounding Kennedy’s prayer practice, closely pressing both sides for answers.
To begin, they questioned how Kennedy’s continued prayer — if he is, indeed, reinstated to his position as he wishes — would be able to forge on without being seen as district-endorced invocations. Yet they also seemed perplexed that his prayers went on for seven years without incident or complaint, according to the Seattle Times.
After oral arguments were heard, Kennedy and attorneys from both sides spoke out to media. While the former coach said that the ordeal has “been tough,” he also added that he’s “very encouraged” as the battle forges on.
“I’m very encouraged because it really is letting everybody know what our constitutional rights are and people start to communicate and start asking the question, ‘What are our rights?’” Kennedy told the press. “Everybody here questions what they are, but to find out what the Constitution really means, it’s great to be involved in it. Good communication, we need more of that.”
Kennedy, who said the case isn’t about money, is hoping he be victorious so that he can once again be a coach.
“I want to be a coach,” he said. “I want to be out there with my young men.”
Hiram Sasser, one of Kennedy’s attorneys with the First Liberty Institute, said that the Bremerton School District is seeking to impose a sweeping rule that could have ramifications for many people of faith.
“The rule that they’re advocating for would ban, for example, a Muslim teacher from wearing a hijab, a Jewish coach from wearing a yarmulke or even a teacher wearing ashes on Ash Wednesday or making the sign of the cross before eating a meal,” he said. “So, that type of rule is so broad that it would impact negatively millions of Americans and their religious liberty rights in public education.”
The Bremerton School District later told media that articles of clothing and religious jewelry are permitted under current policy.
But Andrew Nellis, an attorney with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a First Amendment watchdog that has sided with the district, said after oral arguments that public schools must remain religiously impartial.
“It’s important that the public schools are open and tolerant for students of all faiths,” he said. “Because a lot of times we see in our line of work public schools that aren’t necessarily doing the wrong thing.”
As Faithwire previously reported, 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.
Listen to Kennedy explain his legal battle in his own words below:
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.
There is no definitive timetable for when a ruling will come in on the matter.