The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has once again ruled against Joe Kennedy, a former high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, who was fired for praying after games.
In the decision issued Thursday, a three-judge panel determined that Bremerton School District did not violate Kennedy's First Amendment rights in terminating him since, it ruled, Kennedy was not exercising his religion in private.
"Kennedy's attempts to draw nationwide attention to his challenge to the District showed that he was not engaging in private prayer. Instead, he was engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties," Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. wrote in the opinion.
"The District tried to accommodate Kennedy, but that was spurned by Kennedy insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, potentially surrounded by students. The panel held that the district court correctly granted summary judgment to the District on Kennedy's free speech and free exercise claims," Smith added.
Kennedy, a Christian and 20-year Marine veteran, had exercised his faith by praying at the 50-yard-line after football games for years, and in 2008, players began to join him. But in 2015, the district ordered him to stop, arguing the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. When Kennedy refused, the district terminated him.
Thursday's ruling was not the first time the 9th Circuit heard Kennedy's case. In 2017, the court also ruled against the coach, arguing that he "took advantage of his position" as a public employee and was not entitled to receive his job back. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, however, four conservative justices on the court expressed interest, only saying more information was needed.
On Thursday, attorneys representing Kennedy derided the court's ruling in a statement and vowed further appeal to the Supreme Court.
"Banning coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution," Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute's general counsel, said. "Today's opinion threatens the rights of millions of Americans who simply want to be able to freely exercise their faith without fear of losing their job. We plan to appeal, and we hope the Supreme Court will right this wrong. This fight is far from over."
In an op-ed published by Fox News on Thursday, Kennedy defended his continued legal fight, saying, "There are days when I want to give up and move on with my life. There are days when I don't think I can keep fighting this fight. But that's when I remember the hundreds of times I told my players not quit no matter the challenge!"
"I also think of the thousands of other public school coaches and teachers whose inalienable right to freely exercise their faith in public is at risk if the court decisions against me are allowed to stand," he added. "I'll keep fighting, all the way back to the Supreme Court if necessary. In time, I'm confident I will be able to return to the field, and that the First Amendment rights of coaches and teachers will be restored."
Coach Joe Kennedy Behind the Scenes Special | First Liberty Live! youtu.be