First Amendment Lawsuit | Religious speech

Washington School District Ordered to Reinstate Praying Football Coach

Former assistant varsity football coach Joe Kennedy stands on the Bremerton High School football field.
Former assistant varsity football coach Joe Kennedy stands on the Bremerton High School football field in Bremerton, Washington. Kennedy hasn’t coached at the high school since the Bremerton School District fired him November 2015. (Photo/Courtesy First Liberty Institute).

By Susanna Granieri

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a praying high school football coach this summer, and a U.S. district judge issued an order Nov. 10 instructing a Washington school district to reinstate him.

Joseph Kennedy, assistant high school football coach for the Bremerton School District, was fired in 2015 after the district discovered that he would kneel at the 50-yard line to pray privately after each game. Kennedy sued the school district in federal court for violating his freedom of speech and the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment, which protects his right to practice his religion. Kennedy also requested a preliminary injunction to require the district to give him his job back.

Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected Kennedy’s request for reinstatement as well as his First Amendment arguments. But on June 27 in a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ decisions and sided with Kennedy.

The recent order stated that the district’s termination of Kennedy was in violation of his freedom of speech and religion.

“Bremerton School District shall not interfere with or prohibit Kennedy from kneeling at midfield to engage in a brief, quiet, personal religious ritual during the period after a football game in which the coaching staff are free to attend to personal matters,” stated the order filed in the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.

It also stated that the district cannot retaliate against Kennedy in the future for his religious expression, and he is to be awarded “reasonable” attorney’s fees and costs.

Kennedy was represented in the Supreme Court by First Liberty Institute, a conservative Christian legal nonprofit.

“All Coach Kennedy ever wanted was to be able to get back on the field with his guys and to say a quiet, personal prayer at the 50-yard-line after each game,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute in a Nov. 11 press release. “We look forward to Coach exercising his freedom once again next season.”