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FFRF “amens” 9th Circuit coach prayer ruling

The termination of a public school coach who was fired for proselytizing was just upheld by the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals.

As an assistant football coach at the Bremerton School District in Washington, Joe Kennedy abused his position, often praying with students on the field.

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the school district, finding that Kennedy: "took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him."

The school district told Kennedy that he could not use his position as a school employee to promote religion to a captive audience of school children who depend on his good will for playing time, access to scholarships and more. He was ordered to stop praying with students on Sept. 17, 2015.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation backed up the district the district when Kennedy hired First Liberty Institute, a religious right law firm, to represent him. Kennedy announced that he would pray at the game despite the district's order.

In an October 15, 2015 letter, FFRF urged the district to stand by its earlier decision to prohibit a coach from praying with students. FFRF attorney Madeline Ziegler asked the superintendent to continue upholding the parameters laid out in the Constitution—coaches can't impose prayer on students. If Kennedy refuse to comply, Ziegler wrote, "he must be dismissed before he has the chance to impose his personal religious beliefs on students tomorrow night."

Kennedy was eventually placed on administrative leave and was not rehired the following year. Kennedy then sued and sought a preliminary injunction against the school system. Yesterday, he lost that claim and his suit faces significant obstacles going forward.

As the lawsuit progressed, First Liberty Institute sought to fundraise off the coach's case. It portrayed him as persecuted, creating a circus-like atmosphere around the case. FFRF chastized the 47 members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus for grossly mischaracterizing the law in a 2015 letter to the district.

"The Prayer Caucus's letter is misleading and fundamentally misunderstands the law," FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel wrote. "Several other federal courts have examined this precise issue and all have come down on the side of students' right to an education free from proselytizing and not on the side of a predatory adult seeking to use a position of power to impose their religion on other people's children."

The court ruled: "Kennedy spoke as a public employee when he kneeled and prayed on the 50-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents. Kennedy therefore cannot show a likelihood of success on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim."

It's almost enough to get us at FFRF to say, "Amen!"

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national state/church watchdog with more than 29,000 members across the country, including over 1,200 members in Washington and two chapters, the Inland Northwest Freethought Society and the Unfettered Freethinkers of South Sound. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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