Judge throws out suit by praying Wash. football coach

The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a recent ruling against a former Washington state football coach, who sued after his public high school instructed him to stop praying on the 50-yard line after games.

Joe Kennedy of Bremerton, Wash., has been singled out for praise by President Trump, including in his speech from the Oval Office on Religious Freedom Day in January, and is a darling of Christian Nationalist organizations. Trump has portrayed him as a victim whose religious rights were violated, shaking his hand during one meeting and proclaiming “Thank you, coach.”

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton late last week granted summary judgment in favor of Bremerton School District, ending Kennedy’s lawsuit.

“Like the front of a classroom or the center of a stage, the 50-yard-line of a football field is an expressive focal point from which school-sanctioned communications regularly emanate,” the decision reads. “If a teacher lingers in front of the classroom following a lesson, or a director takes center stage after a performance, a reasonable onlooker would interpret their speech from the location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before it. The same is true for Kennedy’s prayer from the 50-yard line.”

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

The school district told Kennedy that he could not use his position as a school employee to promote religion to a captive audience of students. He was ordered to stop praying with students in September 2015. The Freedom From Religion Foundation backed up 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.

After Kennedy defied the school administration’s instructions, he 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. The district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him, denying the preliminary injunction.

In its decision last week, the district court ruled against Kennedy on the overall case. It also ruled that limiting Kennedy’s prayers were necessary to avoid an Establishment Clause violation.

“Kennedy’s practice of praying at the 50-yard line fails both the endorsement and coercion tests that violates the Establishment Clause,” the judgement states. “While it may not convey school approval as universally as a public announcement system, speech from the center of the football field immediately after each game also conveys an official sanction.”

FFRF praises the district court decision for upholding well-settled legal precedent, which prohibits school employees from using their official capacity to promote their personal religious beliefs upon a captive audience of students.

“This is a clear message to proselytizing coaches everywhere that their religious liberty does not include the right to proselytize students or violate student rights of conscience,” FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor comments. “If players have to pray to play — to suffer through a coach-led and -encouraged prayer — FFRF will be there to defend their rights.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members and several chapters across the country, including over 1,400 members and two chapters in Washington. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

FFRF is a member of the Secular Coalition for America

FFRF privacy statement