A U.S. District Court judge ruled against former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy, who got national attention five years ago when the school banned him from praying on the 50-yard line after games and he sued, saying his religious rights were violated.
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald Leighton granted Bremerton School District’s motion for summary judgment on Thursday.
Leighton noted that the case highlighted the tension inherent in the First Amendment, noting that public school employees have the right to religious expression but the district also has the right to restrict that expression if it violates the prohibition on the government favoring a particular religion, the Kitsap Sun reported. Leighton wrote, “Although the court is sympathetic to Kennedy’s desire to follow his beliefs, the former right must give way to the latter in this case.”
Mike Berry, general counsel for First Liberty Institute, which took on Kennedy’s case, told the Sun he planned to appeal the decision.
Kennedy’s lawsuit claims the district discriminated against him on the basis of his religion and violated both his First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and religion and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“No American should have to choose between their faith and their job,” said Berry when the suit was filed in 2016.
Berry said at the time that since joining the Bremerton coaching staff in 2008, Kennedy had had a consistent and low-key habit of “taking a knee” and saying a prayer after players left the field. But his practice became an issue, ironically, after a visitor from another school complimented Bremerton administrators on the coach’s activity, Berry said.
District officials asked him to stop after it came to their attention in October 2015, and Kennedy initially agreed, but changed his mind after the Texas-based First Liberty Institute — a legal-defense organization that specializes in religious advocacy — took up his cause.
The case became a lightning rod of controversy with support from then-presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson and opposition from people who oppose displays of any religious action on school properties.
It also prompted some students and teachers to invite members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle to attend a game. At the time, Temple spokeswoman Lilith Starr said the group was a reminder of the core principles behind the separation of church and state.
“If one group is allowed to pray, everyone should be,” Starr said at the time.