Coach wins court case, will return to Bremerton: The debate over on-field prayers

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Photo courtesy of The Liberty Institute
Photo courtesy of The Liberty Institute

The Bremerton High School football coach who successfully challenged his school district's policy on public prayer will get his old coaching job back.

The Bremerton School District announced on March 13 that Joe Kennedy will be rehired as assistant football coach. Kennedy was the plaintiff in a First Amendment freedom-of-religion case decided by the US Supreme Court in 2022.

Kennedy started coaching at Bremerton High School in 2008. Soon after he started his job, he began kneeling in prayer on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Initially he prayed alone, but players and other students began to join him. Eventually he began delivering sermons on the football field.

The school district notified Kennedy that his actions violated district policy against public religious observances on school property. Kennedy claimed that he only prayed after the school-sponsored function — the football game — was over, and in any case that his prayers were constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.

The school district put Kennedy on administrative leave in 2015. Kennedy did not reapply for his coaching job for the 2016 season, and soon after moved to Florida to care for a sick family member.

However, he did indicate that he wanted his old job back, and he sued the Bremerton School District, charging them with violating his First Amendment rights.

Photo courtesy of The Liberty Institute  

In court, the school district argued that it did not prohibit Kennedy from praying but only restrained him from "demonstrative religious activity" that is "readily observable" by students or members of the public. Since Kennedy was acting as a public school official, the district added, his prayers might interfere with the First Amendment rights of players and students who might feel pressure to join him.

Kennedy's lawyers countered by pointing to on-field prayers by football stars Mo Salah and Tim Tebow.

During questioning by the justices, the high court's three liberal members tried to portray the school district's policy as a simple boundary issue.

"This doesn't seem like a new problem," said Justice Stephen Breyer. "It just seems like a line-drawing problem about the 50-yard line just after the game, when the school said, 'Don't do it on the 50-yard-line, do it 10 minutes later.'" 

Justice Clarence Thomas, on the other hand, asked about a hypothetical coach who takes a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice. Would the school district consider that action government speech?

"That has to entail looking at the manner, the time, and the place of the speech, and how reasonable observers would see it, whether they would view that as speech as a government employee," the district's attorney replied. "And so, in the hypothetical that you just gave, that's the sort of thing, given that moment during the national anthem in the center of the field and making this public act and public statement, that would be regulable."

The court found 6-3 in Kennedy's favor, laying the basis for him to be rehired. According to the Seattle Times, Kennedy has completed the school district's HR paperwork, and the district is awaiting his fingerprinting and background check results.

The school board will approve football coach contracts on August 3, and Kennedy will be included in coaching staff communications and begin coaching in mid-August, the district said.

The district also announced last week that it had reached an agreement to settle a claim for Kennedy's attorney fees for $1,775,000.