The Case of the Praying Coach: some background facts…

In the oral argument before the Supreme Court in the Case of the Praying Coach, Justice Breyer expressed the view that maybe this case was not so much about the law as it is the facts. It’s a strange case—both sides have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment.  Both of those motions can be denied if the court concludes that there are important factual issues that are in dispute.  Let’s go back to the federal district court’s decision to see what it tells us about some of the key facts. 

TROUBLE BEGINS.  Coach Kennedy had been praying alone and with students long before it became an issue. The school first learned of his practices in September, 2015, when a coach from an opposing team informed the Bremerton High School principal that Kennedy had asked his team to join him on the field for a postgame prayer.  This prompted a visit from the A.D., who “expressed disapproval when Kennedy conducted a prayer on the field.”  The A.D. was right to do that.  It may have been OK for the coach to say his own prayer, but to invite the students to join him went too far and violated school policy.  Coach Kennedy’s responded to this on Facebook, posting that he might get fired for praying. So right from the start, Coach Kennedy went confrontational and public with a personnel issue.  

THE DIRECTIVE.  The district sent the coach a written directive that I am certain was reviewed by legal counsel.  It accurately reflects the state of the law in 2015. The coach was informed that he was free to “engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities.”  However, “student religious activity must be entirely and genuinely student-initiated, and may not be suggested, encouraged (or discouraged), or supervised by any District staff.”  He was told that if he prayed, the students “may not be allowed to join such activity.”

COMPLIANCE. THEN DEFIANCE.  Coach Kennedy complied with the directive for about a month. Then he lawyered up. The lawyers made the ludicrous claim that “his official duties as a coach have ceased” when the game ended.  Therefore, he was a private citizen when he went to the 50-yard line in his coach’s attire, knelt and said a prayer. If the students wanted to join him, they should be allowed to.  The lawyers informed the superintendent that Coach Kennedy would resume his midfield postgame prayer after the homecoming game on October 16. 

HOMECOMING.  The homecoming game was a media circus far out of proportion to the public interest in the Bremerton football game.  Coach Kennedy had orchestrated a media blitz to be sure that his conflict with the school administration would be well covered.  There were reports that band members and cheerleaders were knocked over as a swarm of people rushed to the 50-yard line to be with the coach for the prayer. 

AFTER THAT.  The school sent the coach another letter, informing him that his conduct at the homecoming game violated the previous directive, but offering to continue the “interactive process” of finding an acceptable accommodation of Coach Kennedy’s religious practices.  Coach Kennedy, perhaps emboldened by the nationwide support he was receiving, was not interested in any “interactive process.” He continued to defy the superintendent’s directive. Not surprisingly, the superintendent put him on paid administrative leave.

THE OTHER COACHES.  Coach Kennedy was an assistant coach at the high school level.  The head coach’s evaluation of Kennedy gave him high marks for his relationship with the players but “low marks for putting his own interests over those of the team.”  The A.D. viewed the situation the same way, praising Coach Kennedy’s coaching skills but criticizing “his lack of cooperation, noting that he ‘never came in after numerous requests and contacts.’”  The head coach resigned at the end of the year and the contracts of the six assistants, including Kennedy, expired. Coach Kennedy was one of four assistants who did not apply to be rehired. Instead, he sought a return to coaching via litigation. 

Since this case is now front and center in the Culture Wars, many of these facts are being downplayed or ignored.  It’s easier to portray this as the heavy hand of the state punishing a good Christian man who just wants to give thanks to God and set a good example for the students.  It fits nicely into the narrative being spread by the enemies of public education, that the schools are being run by godless Marxists trying to indoctrinate our children. 

I hope that my Daily Dawg posts will help Loyal DD Readers to understand that it’s more complicated than that.


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Tomorrow: the case goes to the Circuit Court