FFRF: Despite court victory, coach Kennedy must respect students’ rights

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As Joe Kennedy announces his return to coaching at Bremerton High School, FFRF is warning that the Supreme Court’s Kennedy v. Bremerton decision doesn’t mean he can go back to imposing religion on students.

In a statement on March 8, the First Liberty Institute announced that Joe Kennedy was officially rehired as a member of the Bremerton High School football coaching staff, as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling last June. The court held that the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a “personal religious observance” from so-called government reprisal.

A majority of justices on the court unfortunately bought the deceitful narrative spun by Kennedy, who falsely claimed that his prayers on the 50-yard line after high school football games were “personal” and “private” despite his clear intent to involve students and other game attendees in the prayers. Kennedy, with the help of First Liberty Institute, a Christian nationalist legal outfit, brought the lawsuit after the district placed him on paid administrative leave for continuing to host group prayers on the field at the games’ conclusion. The school district tried repeatedly to accommodate Kennedy, but the coach, after initially complying, changed tack.

In response to the ruling, FFRF launched its Student Rights campaign, sending a memo to more than 6,000 school districts warning that the narrow decision only protects “personal” and “private” prayer:

This decision does not give carte blanche to public school employees, including coaches, to engage in religious activity with their players or other subordinates, nor does it allow school districts to impose prayer on all students, parents and community members gathered for school-sponsored events…Public schools have a constitutional obligation not to coerce students into participating in religious rituals like prayer. The Bremerton decision simply affirms that school officials may pray privately during times when they are not acting in their official capacity as district representatives.

FFRF encourages students to be vigilant in defending their rights, including the right to fully participate in public education free from school-sponsored religious pressure or indoctrination. This means that coaches may not conduct prayer or lead any other religious exercise when acting in their role as coach. A coach cannot encourage or require students to pray. Additionally, a coach cannot lead religious talks or preach to players. Students also have the right to participate in all team-related activities without coaches subjecting them to prayers or their religious beliefs.

The Seattle Times reports that after the ruling, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said the decision affirms that school employees can engage in individual prayer only so long as there’s no expectation that others join and that the prayer is not part of official duties.

“No student should have to feel like an outsider on their school sports team or in their classroom because teachers and coaches insist on pushing religion and prayer at school,” says FFRF Legal Director Rebecca Markert.

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor adds, “There can and should be no ‘pray to play’ expectation or de facto policy.”

It is not clear exactly what Kennedy will do when he begins interacting with players again in a few months, but all signs point to him continuing to push religion on students, especially with the uberconservative Supreme Court behind him. Students need to be ready to defend their rights. FFRF will be there to help.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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