Supreme Court Hears Case of Praying Coach | Opinion

No American should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love. He didn't know it at the time, but when Joe Kennedy decided to coach football, he would face exactly that choice.

In 2008, Kennedy made a commitment to God: win or lose, he would take a knee in private prayer on the field of battle after every game. It was a solitary commitment, personal to him, involving no one else.

Over eight football seasons, however, others chose to join him. Not every time. Sometimes players were too excited after a win to stop and join Coach Kennedy at the 50-yard line. Sometimes they were too beaten down after a loss. But win or lose, Kennedy would go through the "good game" line, discuss logistics with the opposing team's coaches, and drop to one knee in private prayer for maybe 15 or 30 seconds.

Then someone complimented the school district about Kennedy's postgame prayers.

In response to that compliment, on September 17, 2015, school officials sent Kennedy a letter directing him to stop all religious-related activities with students. That was fine with Kennedy; the commitment he made to God never involved the students. Since that day, he has never prayed with students.

Instead, he hoped to return to his practice of praying by himself after the game, but school officials didn't like that either. On October 23, 2015, Bremerton School District officials noted how they appreciated Kennedy's "efforts to comply" with their earlier directives. They even recognized Kennedy's post-game, private prayer on one knee as "fleeting." The superintendent explained to Washington's state superintendent of public instruction that the situation had "shifted from leading prayer with student athletes, to a coaches [sic] right to conduct a personal, private prayer.....on the 50 yard line."

School officials ended their October 23 letter by announcing a new policy: not only could Kennedy not engage in religious activity with students, now the school demanded he refrain from engaging in any "demonstrative religious activity" that is "readily observable to...students and the attending public."

Just a few days later, on October 26, 2015, Kennedy finished a game, congratulated the other team, and took a knee in private prayer for 15-30 seconds. Photos of that prayer show the opposing team (in white) walking off the field. Kennedy's players (in blue jerseys) are at least six yards away. No one seems to take any notice of Kennedy.

High school football field
CLINTON, MICHIGAN - SEPTEMBER 18: The Ida Bluesteaks and the Clinton Redskins take the field in the second half on September 18, 2020 in Clinton, Michigan. Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Two days later, school officials suspended Kennedy. Why? Was it because he spent eight football seasons engaged in religious activity with student-athletes? Did he withhold playing time from players reluctant to join his prayer circle?

According to the school district, it disciplined Kennedy because he had engaged in "overt, public and demonstrative religious conduct while still on duty." He had, "kneeled on the field and prayed immediately following" the game he had just coached.

The same day it suspended Coach Kennedy, the school district released a "Q&A Regarding Assistant Football Coach Joe Kennedy" on its website. The school acknowledged that "There is indeed no evidence that students have been directly coerced to pray with Kennedy."

But it went further. "To the District's knowledge," the school admitted, "Mr. Kennedy has complied with [the school's earlier] directives not to intentionally involve students in his on-duty religious activities. However, he has continued a practice of engaging in a public religious display immediately following games, while he is still on duty."

A month later, the school district would place, "Do Not Rehire..." at the end of the first negative evaluation it ever gave him.

Kennedy has been locked in litigation with the school district for almost as many years as he was a football coach. His case, in which he seeks only to be reinstated as a coach and the ability to take a knee in private prayer following games, is now before the Supreme Court of the United States.

If Coach Kennedy can be relieved of his duties for a "public religious display...while he is still on duty," then what prevents school districts across the country from firing a teacher's "public religious display" of a crucifix around the neck, yarmulke atop the head or hijab wrapped about the face? If students might see a teacher say grace over her lunch in the cafeteria, will it serve as grounds for her termination?

Banning anyone from praying just because they can be seen by the public is wrong and violates the Constitution. Let us hope the Court realizes it.

Jeremy Dys is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. First Liberty represents Coach Kennedy. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.