SEATTLE – A Washington state high school football coach took advantage of his position when he prayed on the field after games, and he's not entitled to immediately get his job back, a federal appeals court said Wednesday.
The three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeals unanimously held that Bremerton High coach Joe Kennedy's prayers did not constitute protected free speech because he was acting as a public employee, not a private citizen, when he conducted them.
"By kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, Kennedy was sending a message about what he values as a coach, what the District considers appropriate behavior, and what students should believe, or how they ought to behave," Judge Milan Smith wrote for the court.
The judge added that Kennedy "took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him."
Kennedy had previously led players in postgame prayers, but the Bremerton School District ordered him to stop in 2015, saying the practice violated the separation of church and state required by the U.S. Constitution. He lost his job after he defied the ban.
Kennedy then sued, saying his religious rights had been violated. He asked U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton to force the district to re-hire him while the case proceeds, but Leighton refused — a decision the 9th Circuit opinion upheld.
The case has drawn broad national attention, including when President Donald Trump featured Kennedy at a campaign event in Virginia last October.
"Teachers and coaches don't get to pressure students to pray," Richard B. Katskee, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement Wednesday. "Students and families have the right to decide whether and how to practice their faith. Public schools should be welcoming places for all students and families, and no student should feel like an outsider at his or her school."
First Liberty Institute, the religious-freedom law firm that represents Kennedy in the case, criticized the decision — saying that by its logic, coaches would not be allowed to bow their head in prayer or make a sign of the cross when players get hurt. The organization said it was reviewing Kennedy's legal options.
"Banning all coaches from praying individually in public just because they can be seen is wrong," First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford said in a statement. "This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution."
The school district said in a statement that it "appreciates the well-reasoned decision."
"The District's legal counsel will now focus on the next phase of this case in the trial court, and we look forward to the eventual full resolution of this matter," it said.
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