Op-Ed | 9th Circuit Appeals Court denies reinstatement of praying coach

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Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy lost his job after he refused to stop praying on the field after games. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has refused to reinstate Kennedy. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times, file)

Seattle Times reporter, Mike Carter, published an article regarding the decision by the 9th Circuit Appeals court. According to the article, the decision to reinstate Bremerton assistant football court Joseph Kennedy was denied. The decision was published in a 62-page opinion on the court case. Carter’s article appears to provide a brief summary on the two opinions from the 3-judge panel. The decision appears to be made on the basis that the appellate court found Kennedy having used his position as an assistant football coach in an advantageous way to “…press his particular views upon impressionable and captive minds before him.” This appears to be the consistent opinion of the court’s opinion. The question posited before the court focused on the First Amendment of free speech and whether the Bremerton School District violated Kennedy’s right to free speech.

The focus is to reflect the heart and message of the 9th Circuit opinion and judgment in regards to religious liberty and freedom, and the right to free speech. The question before us is to determine whether or not Joseph Kennedy had the right to freely exercise his religious expression while fulfilling his role as an assistant coach.  The two opinions cite previous case studies regarding school employees and free speech.

Entrusted Representative

The court acknowledged that Joseph Kennedy was entrusted by the Bremerton School District “to be a coach, mentor and role model for the student athletes.” They appear to take in consideration Kennedy’s own acknowledgement of being observed by others as he fulfilled his duties. The court appeared to further observe that Kennedy’s duties included proper conduct “…before the public and players at all times.” Through this, he agreed to assist in the development of “good athletes” and “good human beings.”

Presenting Problem

The issue arose when “an employee of of another school district mentioned the post-game prayers to a BSD administrator.” This “discovery” seemed to prompt –

“…an inquiry into whether Kennedy was complying with the school board’s policy on “Religious-Related Activities and Practices.” Pursuant to that policy, “[a]s a matter of individual liberty, a student may of his/her own volition engage in private, non-disruptive prayer at any time not in conflict with learning activities.” In addition, “[s]chool staff shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any other form of devotional activity.”

The Bremerton School District’s concern, according to the two opinions published, rests on whether or not Kennedy placed the school district in violation of the establishment clause. Kennedy appeared to argue the school district failed to protect his right to free speech and religious liberty of expression. And, the issue revolved around Kennedy praying at the 50-yard line immediately after every game.

Opinion of the 9th Circuit Appeals Court

Based on the two opinions, the burden of proof that Bremerton School District had violated Joseph Kennedy’s right to free speech and religious liberty to pray at the 50-yard was not met. The argument focused on whether Kennedy spoke in capacity as an official employee of the School district, or as a private citizen. The court appeared to agree, and conclude, that he was not speaking in capacity as a private citizen; but, that he spoke in an official capacity as it was in front of the public and athletes, while wearing the school’s logo and colors.

Citing letters written to Joseph Kennedy, the court appeared to show that the Bremerton School District wanted to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to express his religious beliefs and prayers. It appeared, from the published opinion, he did comply with the school districts request. However, Kennedy made a request for the accommodation that he be allowed to continue to pray at the 50-yard line right after every game.

Free speech, religious liberty and expression

The heart of the issue is the question of free speech, religious liberty and the ability to freely express and practice that. The 9th Circuit of Appeals focused on the fact that Kennedy’s right to constitutionally protection of free speech and religious liberty did not appear to be in violation. The concern reflects the threat to the establishment clause whereby an individual, group, or organization operating under an official capacity is to appear to endorse one specific religious belief over another.

Along with this, the argument also proceeded to introduce the media sensation and coverage that ensued when this issue had come to light. The court opinion reflected that Kennedy was no longer seen by the public and athletes at the games, he was also interviewed, news media were present, and the story appeared to catch national headlines. It also seemed to generate conversations as to whether or not he had the right and privilege to exercise his Christian faith, or the school district had the right to intervene and request he refrain from performing his religious expression of praying at the 50-yard line.

In light of the presenting information and court decision

Taking in consideration of the article, the decision of the 9th Circuit appeals court, the question remains: Was Kennedy’s right to free speech infringed upon when it came to his Christian faith and expression?

It appeared the Bremerton school district made effort in accommodating his religious faith and expression. The school district also has a due diligence to ensure that all employees represent the school: this includes personal conduct while under observation of the general public and students.

Laying biased and prejudicial opinion aside, the reality is that both, Kennedy and the Bremerton School district had an instrumental hand in the creation of a media firestorm. Had the coach complied with the school’s request, this may not have become the media sensation it had. However, it does warrant the ongoing discussion in relation to one’s individual rights to free speech and religious expression.

Does an individual have the right to express their religious beliefs? I am in full agreement with that. This is the heart and premise of the first amendment of our Constitution. Did he have the right to continue to practice this openly and in front of others? While his intentions were good and admirable, the fact remains: As Christians, we are to not pray in public.

This is what Christ had taught us:

“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (See Matthew 6:5-6).

When Kennedy first started praying at the 50-yard line, it appeared he admitted of doing this alone and taking only 30-seconds. Others had eventually joined in. Based on the information, he neither encouraged or discouraged people from joining in. In addition, as the practice continued, he appeared to report that he took an opportunity to provide inspirational messages with a religious connotation. The court agreed that his intent was never to coarse, and the two opinions even state there was no overt coercion to do so. However, they did find that there was a subtle coercion as evident when he had discontinued the practice, students were appeared to not be motivated to do so; or, those who did, did so in limited situations.

As a Christian myself, prayer is a private matter, and this is what appeared Kennedy wanted to do was to do a private prayer with God. And, the district did provide an opportunity for Kennedy to continue with his religious expression of faith. What I have seen as a problematic among Christians today is the idea that everything presented appears to be interpreted as a violation of their right to religious expression and freedom. Some fail to take into account that this is not the message of Jesus Christ and the heart of Christianity.

Yes, we are to pray, to be thankful, however, we also have to be mindful in the manner in which we conduct ourselves. We are ever being observed. How we do this, when we do this, and in what manner we do this. This is where discernment ought to motivate us to keep accountable in how we are behaving and engaging in our professions.

Do I believe Joseph Kennedy’s right to free speech was infringed upon? To a certain extent no. Do I believe that he deserved to be relieved of his duties as an assistant football coach? Based on the evidence and behavior, the school district has a moral obligation to ensure the safety and rights of others.