(Reuters) - A Washington State school district did not violate the religious and free speech rights of a high school football coach by forbidding him from kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games, a federal appeals court ruled unanimously on Thursday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Bremerton school district would have violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion by letting Joseph Kennedy pray in view of spectators, and with students who might feel pressured to join him.
It rejected Kennedy’s claim he was engaging in “private” prayer, citing his efforts to draw local and national support, and said district personnel had received “hateful” and “threatening” emails, letters and calls from around the country.
“Although there are numerous close cases chronicled in the Supreme Court’s and our current Establishment Clause caselaw, this case is not one of them,” Circuit Judge Milan Smith wrote for a three-judge panel, which upheld a lower court ruling.
Kennedy plans to appeal.
“Banning coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong” and unconstitutional, said Mike Berry, general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, which represented Kennedy. “We hope the Supreme Court will right this wrong.”
The school district’s lawyers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Kennedy was an assistant coach at Bremerton High School outside Seattle from 2008 to 2015, when he was put on leave. His contract later expired.
The coach’s case drew support from religious conservatives and free speech advocates, and from 21 Republican state attorneys general who accused the school district of “censuring Kennedy as an excuse to prohibit his religious exercise.”
In 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear Kennedy’s appeal from the 9th Circuit’s denial of an injunction to reinstate him and let him pray.
Four conservative justices - Samuel Alito, joined by Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh - wrote separately that the appeals court’s understanding of teachers’ free speech rights was “troubling and may justify review in the future.”
The case is Kennedy v Bremerton School District, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 20-35222.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Alexandra Hudson
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