Joe Kennedy kneeling on the 50-yard line of a football field in prayer. Courtesy Liberty Institute

Kennedy’s case goes to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals June 12

BREMERTON — Former football coach Joe Kennedy’s lawsuit against the Bremerton School District will be heard by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle on June 12.

Kennedy sued the school district on Aug. 8, 2016 in hopes of getting reinstated. The district chose not to renew his contract, saying his practice of praying on the 50-yard line after every football game violated policies against district employees participating in “visibly religious activity.”

On Sept. 19, 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton denied Kennedy a preliminary injunction — an order requiring the school district to reinstate him. Kennedy, who is represented by the Liberty Institute, filed an appeal Oct. 3, 2016.

“We’re grateful for the opportunity,” said Mike Berry, Kennedy’s lawyer. “It’s impossible to predict how the court’s going to rule in any particular case. We believe the law is on our side and the facts are on our side. We hope the court agrees with us and gives us a favorable ruling.”

He continued, “We have to wait and see what the court says before we can make a decision about what the next steps will be. If the appeals court rules in Kennedy’s favor, “there is a chance — no guarantee, but at least a chance — that the District Court would make a ruling that Coach Kennedy was wrongfully terminated, and the [school] district would have to reinstate him.”

He added, “We’re not asking for money damages or anything like that. At the end of the day, the one thing Coach Kennedy wants more than anything else is to be back on the sidelines with his players.”

Berry said if Kennedy is not a coach because of the district’s “unconstitutional policy, then we believe that needs to be challenged.”

“The bottom line is that a favorable ruling would obviously be good for protecting the rights of public employees and public school employees who are seeking to have their first amendment rights protected as public employees.”

What happened before now

Kennedy’s post-game prayer practice was challenged following a comment by an employee of a rival high school, after that employee witnessed a post-game prayer in September 2015. What followed was a back and forth between the district and Kennedy, in which the district told Kennedy to stop praying on the field after games, saying it violated district policy. Kennedy refused, claiming it was his constitutional right to freely express his religious beliefs.

Kennedy was placed on paid administrative leave Oct. 28, 2015. On Dec. 15, 2015, Kennedy and his lawyers filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In January 2016, the school district opted not to renew Kennedy’s contract. The EEOC issued a right-to-sue letter to Kennedy on June 27, 2016. Kennedy filed his lawsuit on Aug. 8, 2016.

On Sept. 19, 2016, a preliminary injunction was denied by Judge Leighton. Kennedy filed an appeal Oct. 3, 2016.

To read previous coverage of this issue, visit:

Sept. 22, 2016: Kennedy’s preliminary injunction denied by U.S. District Court judge

Aug. 11, 2016: Former coach Kennedy files lawsuit against Bremerton School District

Dec. 15, 2015: Coach Kennedy files religious discrimination charge against the Bremerton School District

Nov. 13, 2015: Public comments on public prayer

Oct. 26, 2015: Satanic Temple offers to hold invocations after next football game

Oct. 26, 2015: Kennedy to file lawsuit against school district over post-game prayers

Oct. 22, 2015: School board and public comments on post-game prayer

Oct. 17, 2015: Centralia football team joins Bremerton coach in prayer

Oct. 14, 2015: Kennedy to resume prayers with football team

Sept. 18, 2015: Football coach won’t be fired; can’t participate in post-game prayers

Sept. 16, 2015: Post-game prayers at center of controversy

Michelle Beahm is an editor with Kitsap News Group. She can be reached at mbeahm@soundpublishing.com.