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Bremerton Football Coach Joe Kennedy Loses Appeal

Joe Kennedy, the former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School who was suspended and let go for continuing to pray after football games, will not be returning to team practices and games anytime soon.

Coach Kennedy’s story rose to national news prominence two years ago when the Bremerton School District told him to stop praying with students before and after football games. Believing that he has the right to pray privately after games, Kennedy began “taking a knee” on the fifty-yard line following the conclusion of each game.

Bremerton School District placed the coach on suspension, then refused to renew his contract for the following year. Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the school district, requesting that he be reinstated as coach and contending that the school district had discriminated against him and was violating his First Amendment rights. After losing at the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, Kennedy appealed the decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Kennedy’s case was heard before a three-judge panel, which ruled yesterday that Kennedy’s prayer isn’t protected under the First Amendment and Title VII because he acted as a public employee and not as a private citizen. Kennedy’s prayer “risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all,” according to the judges.

First Liberty, the religious liberty organization representing Kennedy, has not decided whether it will appeal the decision.

Joe Kennedy’s Case To Be Heard By Ninth Circuit Monday

He was fired for praying on the football field after games. Now Coach Kennedy will have his case heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

School officials told Joe Kennedy—a former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School who was adored by his players—that he couldn’t pray after football games. After Kennedy continued praying, Bremerton School District placed him on administrative leave. They chose not to rehire him the next season.

Kennedy has sued the school district for discriminating against him on the basis of his religion.

This Monday, June 12, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District at 9:00 am. The oral arguments will be heard at William K. Nakamura Courthouse, 1010 Fifth Avenue, Seattle, WA 98104.

Kennedy is being represented by First Liberty, a nationally renowned religious liberty legal defense organization. First Liberty has created a webpage to provide more information for those who want to learn about the particulars of the case.

Bremerton Debates: Coach Joe and the First Amendment

The five-member Bremerton School Board of Directors isn’t used to seeing a full room of concerned citizens at their regular meetings.

While the regular calendar included no items directly concerning District policies on religious expression or disciplinary action of Coach Joe Kennedy, that didn’t stop dozens of Bremerton residents from showing up to fill the one-hour allotment of time reserved for public testimony.

School Board rules dictate that the names of individual staff or students may not be named during public testimony, shifting the conversation to a more philosophical level and leaving citizens to spar on the intent and interpretation of the First Amendment, among other things.

By rough the estimates of the applause following individual testimony, probably 7 out of 10 people in attendance supported the cause of Coach Joe Kennedy.  But several of the speakers encouraged the school district to continue in their course of action against Coach Kennedy. “He (Kennedy) deserves to be fired and banned from any further work in the district,” said Bremerton resident Terence Connors.

Other residents came to Coach Kennedy’s defense.  “When people stand up and exercise their faith … and others join them voluntarily, we should support them,” Bremerton resident David Hatzenbuehler said. “To suppress that is really standing in violation of the very principles our country was founded on.”

You can read some of the night’s other comments here.

While most of the speakers remained civil and reserved in their remarks on both sides of the debate, several speakers who spoke in opposition to Coach Joe showed high levels of emotion, raising their voices, crying, and, in the case of one parent, angrily slamming a thick stack of papers down on the desk of the school board directors before storming out of the hearing room.

The most striking part of the evening really had little to do with one person’s actions or demeanor.  Scattered throughout the opposition’s testimony was the prevailing notion that Coach Joe Kennedy is not just in the wrong, but that he has somehow broken the law and should face punishment — that somehow his prayer has created an unsafe environment for children.

It’s clear now that America now has very different opinions of what the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression actually mean.

Think Progress: Muslims Awarded Damages While Christians are Fined

The case of the Muslim truck drivers who wouldn’t deliver beer is making Christian florists, bakeries, and photographers around the country cry foul.

In 2013, an Illinois trucking company called Star Transport fired two Muslim employees who refused to deliver alcohol.  The employees claimed that delivering alcohol would violate their religious beliefs about alcohol.

After two years of litigation, a jury awarded the drivers $240,000 in damages because their religious beliefs were violated by their employer.

The Obama Administration, through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, filed the lawsuit on the side of religious freedom on behalf of the employees.

Employers have long been required to make reasonable accommodations for their employees’ religious beliefs.  This has allowed Seventh Day Adventists to keep their jobs despite not working on Saturday and allowed Muslims to wear a hijab in the workplace despite uniform policies that would otherwise forbid it.

The principle is, “people shouldn’t be forced to choose between their faith and their income.”

And everyone nods their head in agreement.

Still, the reason the story of the Muslim truck drivers is remarkable (especially the fact that the Obama Administration took the side of the employees) is because of all the recent stories about governments working to force people to violate their beliefs in the course of their employment.

Here in Washington State, Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued a grandmother in her personal capacity because she did not feel she could decorate for a same-sex wedding.

The State of Oregon fined Aaron and Melissa Klein $135,000 because they declined to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.

A baker in Denver was sent to government retraining because he would not bake a cake supportive of same-sex ceremonies.

The principle of equal protection under the law requires the government to treat people who are similarly situated in a similar way.

It seems like the truck drivers, bakers, and florists are in similar situations. “They asked me to do something for my job I felt like I could not do.”

But one of them gets government aid while the others get sued.

The First Amendment’s guarantee to the free exercise of religion applies to the Muslim truck driver just as it does to the Christian florist.  No one disputes this.

No one disputes the idea that the right to decline to participate in events that violate your religious beliefs was once protected under the First Amendment either.

The difference, however, lies in the fact that state governments have declared a “compelling state interest” in ending discrimination based on “sexual orientation” and that law is now being interpreted to mean that florists and bakers must participate in same-sex ceremonies.

The effect of this interpretation of non-discrimination laws is that state legislatures have seized the authority to repeal constitutional rights.

The Muslim truck drivers are likely unaware their right to decline to deliver alcohol will disappear the moment Illinois bans discrimination against alcohol and those who drink it.

Just wait until some state declares a compelling state interest in eliminating hate speech.

Sarcasm may soon be illegal.

If your response to that development is, “I thought the First Amendment guaranteed the right to free speech,” leftists will look at you like you have a third eye.  “We’re protecting you from that, of course.”

The Constitution describes how to change the Constitution, but that process does not include, “Have your state legislature declare a compelling state interest in eliminating the constitutional right you find most offensive.”

But that’s how we’re operating now.  And a lot of us are naïve enough to call it progress.