Coach Fights in Court to Pray Silently on the Field

by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  June 14, 2017   

President Trump: "I think it's very, very sad and outrageous"

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SEATTLE ( - A high school coach in Washington is fighting in federal court for the right to pray silently by himself for 30 seconds at the end of each football game.

On Monday, Joe Kennedy was in Seattle's 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will be deciding the fate of Kennedy's coaching future. Kennedy's lawyer, Jeremy Dys from First Liberty Institute, foresees much more is at stake for Americans as Kennedy's employer, Bremerton School District in Washington, forbid Kennedy in 2015 from "demonstrative religious expression in public."

"Think about where that leads," Dys said. "That means that the Muslim teacher could not wear her hijab. It means that the Jewish teacher could not wear his yarmulke to the public school setting. It means the Catholic teacher could not wear her crucifix."

Dys said there's much confusion involving the multiple requirements of the First Amendment. The school district told Kennedy in a letter that his actions violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which they quoted as follows: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Kennedy would pray silently on one knee after each game on behalf of players' safety and for a fair and spirited game. The school didn't want to be accused of sponsoring a particular religion based on Kennedy's personal moment of silent prayer. Dys said the school, in restricting Kennedy, overstepped its legal boundry:

[In] their zeal to make sure that they were not held liable to an Establishment Clause violation, they've not only violated the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, but they've also violated federal employment law, Title 7, which requires them to accommodate an employee's religious beliefs so long as doing so does not cause an undue hardship upon the employer.

Students defended the fact that no pressure was ever placed on any student to pray with Kennedy, and his prayer never singled out any particular religion. "It isn't a big deal at all," said football player Brandon Chavez. I prayed because I'm Catholic but some walked off. There was never any pressure."

I prayed because I'm Catholic but some walked off. There was never any pressure.

Kennedy has gained a lot of support from Congress over the incident. As the matter was coming to a head in October 2015, nearly 50 members of Congress signed a letter supporting Kennedy and affirming his personal prayer didn't violate the First Amendment. The letter stated the U.S. Supreme Court has reviewed and allowed "the voluntary observance of a brief prayer at the beginning of a legislative session — a tradition that is also embraced by both the United States Senate and House of Representatives."

Another Kennedy supporter is President Donald Trump. Speaking last October at a gathering of Retired American Warriors PAC, then-presidential candidate Trump brought up the issue of Kennedy's firing. Trump asked Kennedy, who as a military veteran was in the crowd, to stand. "So you're not allowed to pray before a football game? I thought it was horrible." Trump added, "I think it's outrageous. I think it's very, very sad and outrageous."

Kennedy served as a Marine for more than 20 years and says he only wanted time to pray silently by himself at the end of the game. During oral arguments in court Monday, Kennedy related, "I fought in the Marines for our freedom. I never thought I'd have to go to court to protect my own. My hope is that, at the end of the day, the court will let me get back to the sidelines and back with my team."


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