Federal court in Washington state again rejects football coach’s prayer argument

by | Mar 12, 2020

Let’s turn back the clock. Last year, a federal district court in Washington state ruled in favor of a school district and against Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach who objected to school officials’ demand that he stop his practice of praying at the 50-yard line directly after games. On appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision not to issue an injunction against the school district pending the outcome of Kennedy’s First Amendment lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court, over the objection of four of the nine justices, declined to intervene at that preliminary stage.

Now, that same district court has granted the school district’s motion for summary judgment, dismissing the coach’s case altogether. On the coach’s Free Speech argument, Judge Robert Leighton determined that Kennedy’s speech “was uniquely tied to his job” and thus his prayers were undertaken in his capacity as a public employee.

In an especially compelling passage from the opinion, the judge explained that the school district was justified in restricting his actions out of concern for violating the Establishment Clause. That’s partly because such prayers can give the impression that the school endorses the coach’s religious perspective. But also for an even more dangerous reason:

“[E]ven more than the perception of school endorsement, the greatest threat posed by Kennedy’s prayer is its potential to subtly coerce the behavior of students attending games voluntarily or by requirement. Players (sometimes via parents) reported feeling compelled to join Kennedy in prayer to stay connected with the team or ensure playing time, and there is no evidence of athletes praying in Kennedy’s absence. Kennedy himself testified that, “[o]ver time, the number of players who gathered near [him] after the game grew to include the majority of the team.” This slow accumulation of players joining Kennedy suggests exactly the type of vulnerability to social pressure that makes the Establishment Clause vital in the high school context. As anyone who has passed through that fraught stage of life can confirm, there is no time when the urge to join majority trends is greater. But when it comes to religion, the Establishment Clause forbids government actors from using this pressure to promote conformity.”

The judge is exactly right. Courts have consistently ruled that schoolchildren are particularly vulnerable to the threat of religious coercion. School officials owe a particular duty to protect them, even when that means restricting the religiously motivated actions of their employees.

You can read the entire opinion here.