The Case of the Praying Coach…

We’re spending all week here at the Daily Dawg on Kennedy v. Bremerton School District a/ka/ The Case of the Praying Coach.  Yesterday I told you some of the facts of the case as set out by the federal district court.  Today: we take a look at the Circuit Court’s decision, which is the ruling that is now being reviewed by the Supreme Court.

One thing we learn from the 9th Circuit Court’s decision is that the head coach in Bremerton resigned after 11 years with the district after all the controversy surrounding Coach Kennedy.  The head coach reported the time when “an adult who he had never seen before came up to his face and cursed him in a vile manner.”  The head coach had fears for his personal safety and “as a result of these concerns decided that he would resign.”

Before he did that he recommended that Coach Kennedy not be rehired for the next year.  Why?  Because he “failed to follow district policy” and “his actions demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration.”  Moreover, his actions “contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches and the school district” and he “failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with the media and the community.”

If the Supreme Court concludes that those were the reasons that Kennedy was put on administrative leave and later not rehired, the school will win this case.  But the lawyers representing Coach Kennedy are trying to box the school into a simpler reason for the decisions.  That is: the school was trying to avoid the impression that it had endorsed Coach Kennedy’s prayers.  They repeatedly emphasized in oral argument the finding of the district court that “the risk of constitutional liability associated with Kennedy’s religious conduct was the ‘sole reason’ the District suspended him.”

Initially, Kennedy’s lawyers argued that his job duties ended when the game did, and thus he was a private citizen praying at the 50-yard line immediately after the game.  Every coach in America knows that that is not true.  Coaches are on duty until the locker room is clear and the kids have left.  So the lawyers backed off on that, but continued to portray this as a brief, quiet, private prayer.  Justice Gorsuch noted that a public school’s tolerance of a person’s private prayer does not mean that the government is endorsing religion.  But under the facts of this case Coach Kennedy was not just asking the school to tolerate his private religious expression.  He was asking the school to tolerate his open and public defiance of the superintendent’s directive.

The Circuit Court emphasized how Kennedy’s behavior was different from that of a teacher silently saying grace with bowed head before a meal in the school cafeteria.  That would be OK, but with regard to Kennedy the court said this:

At the outset, we address Kennedy’s repeated contention that the practice he sought to engage in was a brief, personal, and private prayer. While his prayer may have been brief, the facts in the record utterly belie his contention that the prayer was personal and private.

The Circuit Court concluded with this:

Kennedy’s attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to BSD compels the conclusion that he was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties. 

Will the Supreme Court see it that way?  Stay tuned!


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Tomorrow: we’re Zooming!