Just in time for football: court tells coach to quit praying on the field

 High school football.  A praying coach. And the law.  This gives us all the ingredients we need for a made for TV-movie, or a good court case.  It brings out the culture warriors in droves. So let us take a moment to reflect on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

The Coach Kennedy liked to say a prayer after the football game. He liked to do it smack dab on the 50-yard line. Lots of players joined him.

This went on for quite a while, but eventually someone complained to a school administrator.  This led to an exchange of lawyerly crafted correspondence between superintendent and coach.  The message to the coach was plain: Coach—you can’t do this anymore.  Here’s my favorite part of the court’s lengthy opinion:

Kennedy’s legal representatives responded to the District’s letter by informing the media that the only acceptable outcome would be for the District to permit Kennedy to pray on the 50-yard line immediately after games.

Hmmmm. How do you suppose the superintendent felt about that?

The Coach eventually sought an injunction to permit him to continue to pray. The court denied it. He appealed to the 9th Circuit, which has now ruled against him as well.  The court held that Coach Kennedy was not “speaking as a citizen” when he prayed. He was speaking as a school employee:

…by kneeling and praying on the 50-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, Kennedy was sending a message about what he values as a coach, what the District considers appropriate behavior, and what students should believe, or how they ought to behave. Because such demonstrative communication fell within the scope of Kennedy’s professional obligations, the constitutional significance of Kennedy’s job responsibilities is plain—he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech was therefore unprotected.

The court spelled out the many ways in which Coach Kennedy could practice his religion and then added:

What he cannot do is claim the First Amendment’s protection…when he kneels and prays on the 50-yard line immediately after games in school logoed attire in view of students and parents.

In support of its decision, the 9th Circuit cited cases that came to the same conclusion in similar circumstances from the 3rd, 6th, 7th and 5th Circuits. The 5th Circuit case is Doe v. Duncanville, 70 F.3d 402 (5th Cir. 1995).

You might want to let your coaches know about these decisions. The trend line is pretty clear.  This one was decided by the 9th Circuit on August 23, 2017.