The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments Monday from lawyers for a former Bremerton football coach who lost his position after praying on the field after games despite being told to stop by the Bremerton School District. Judges will also hear from the district.
Former football coach Joe Kennedy says what began as a private prayer almost a decade ago has raged into a religious battle he cannot back down from.
“It wasn't about religion or anything. It was that moment of giving thanks. It just turned into something that became this big religious fight,” Kennedy said.
Coach Kennedy says his lawsuit does not include a monetary amount. He simply wants his job back.
“I made the conscious decision that even if it costs me everything, it’s the right thing to do. As a coach, I’m telling these kids, ‘Hey, you gotta do what’s right -- even if it’s not popular, even when it’s tough at times. And when things get tough, we want them to step up and continue to fight and play the game. How could I ever be a coach to these guys if I ever back down?'" Kennedy said.
Kennedy lost his position as assistant coach in 2015. School district officials learned he had been praying on the 50-yard-line after games. However, Kennedy says he had been doing this after every game for the last seven years with no issues. Students, he says, only joined if they wanted to.
Michael Berry, attorney with First Liberty in Plano, TX, and Kennedy’s lead attorney said when the school district took issue with the ritual his client stopped including students. However, Berry says the restrictions continued.
“You can talk to your players, you can talk to the parents, but if you talk to God, we're going to fire you, and that's what they did,” Berry said.
The attorney said the school district violated Kennedy’s constitutional right to religious expression.
“Really the straw that broke the camel’s back was 'You can’t do anything that’s visibly religious.' And that’s unconstitutional,” Berry said.
The district refrains from commenting on pending legal cases, but has argued in the past that Kennedy was still on duty during the postgame prayer ritual; and while students in public schools have the right to pray on school grounds, employees cannot.
“One night I didn't say a prayer on the field, and as I was driving home from the field, I felt like I just let God down. So I turned around, and I drove back to the field at 11 at night. I felt like I was sneaking onto the field to say a prayer at the 50,” Kennedy said. “It was at that point where I was like, no, I’m not going to hide who I am. I’m not going to hide my faith.”