Written by Don Byrd

A Washington state school district did not violate a high school football coach’s free speech rights under the First Amendment when it required him to stop praying on the field with his team after games, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled earlier today. Bremerton High School coach Joseph Kennedy gained national media attention over his refusal to stop praying immediately after games, causing school officials to place him on leave. The Court rejected his bid for an injunction that would reinstate Kennedy as coach, finding that he was acting as a public employee and not a private citizen when he prayed on the field.

In its opinion, the court stressed that Kennedy remained on the job after the game, was engaged in conduct in a place and time that ordinary citizens could not access, and could easily give the impression that he was speaking on behalf of the government. Therefore, district officials were within their rights to restrict his message as a public employee.

That does not mean that Kennedy gave up all right to religious free speech as a public school athletic coach. The Court explains:

Kennedy can pray in his office while he is on duty drawing up plays, pray nondemonstratively when on duty supervising students, or pray in “a private location within the school building, athletic facility, or press box” before and after games, as BHS offered. He can also write letters to a local newspaper while on duty as a coach, or privately discuss politics or religion with his colleagues in the teacher’s lounge. What he cannot do is claim the First Amendment’s protections for private-citizen speech when he kneels and prays on the fifty-yard line immediately after games in school logoed-attire in view of students and parents.

In a separate concurring opinion, Judge Milan Smith also found that the school district was within its rights to discipline Kennedy because allowing the coach’s actions to continue would have risked constitutional guarantees against the establishment of religion. He adds:

Some readers may find this conclusion disconcerting. The record reflects, after all, that Coach Kennedy cared deeply about his students, and that his conduct was well-intentioned and flowed from his sincerely-held religious beliefs. Given those factors, it is worth pausing to remember that the Establishment Clause is designed to advance and protect religious liberty, not to injure those who have religious faith. Indeed, history has taught us “that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay[s] in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.”

Judge Milan is exactly right on this point. Christians who decry this outcome simply because it seems to restrict a fellow Christian’s right to pray should think twice. The government’s effort to control its own speech, and to avoid the appearance of endorsing religion is an key constitutional component in protecting religious liberty for all. The coach may have meant well, but prayer that appears to be government-approved, particularly when directed at impressionable students, does religion no favors.

You can read the entire opinion here.