<em>Former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy kneels on the 50-yard line of a football field in prayer.</em>
                                Photo courtesy Liberty Institute

Former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy kneels on the 50-yard line of a football field in prayer. Photo courtesy Liberty Institute

Coach Kennedy’s lawyers: Supreme Court next step

Lawyer says lower court decision could affect other faiths

BREMERTON — The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Jan. 31 denied former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy’s request for a hearing before the entire court (known as “en banc”).

“It is disappointing that the Ninth Circuit would refuse to hear Coach Kennedy’s case en banc, especially in light of the extreme, far-reaching opinion issued by the three-judge panel,” said Mike Berry, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, Kennedy’s representative.

“If this decision is allowed to stand, Jewish teachers can be fired for wearing a yarmulke in sight of students, Catholic teachers are at risk if they wear a crucifix and Muslim teachers may face discrimination for wearing a hijab to work.”

In 2015, the Bremerton School District chose not to renew Kennedy’s employment contract after he continued to pray after games on the 50-yard line.

Kennedy challenged the firing, contending that praying after the game — for which he was often joined by his players — was protected under the Constitution as free speech. The district disagreed, contending that as a school employee, Kennedy’s prayer could be viewed as the district’s endorsement of a specific religion, in violation of the Constitution.

Kennedy sued the school district on Aug. 8, 2016, in hopes of getting reinstated as coach. 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.

The appeals court heard arguments in the case in June 2017 and issued its ruling in favor of the school district Aug. 23.

“Banning all coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution,” said Kelly Schackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty. “We will keep fighting on behalf of Coach Kennedy until his religious liberties are fully restored, including appealing this case to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

For previous coverage, search for “Joe Kennedy” on KitsapDailyNews.com.

— Michelle Beahm is online editor for Kitsap News Group. Contact her at mbeahm@soundpublishing.com.

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