Friday, March 06, 2020

High School Football Coach's Complaint Over On-Field Prayer Ban Is Dismissed

In Kennedy v. Bremerton Schoool District, (W WA, March 5, 2020), a Washington federal district court dismissed 1st Amendment and Title VII claims by a high school football coach who was suspended when he insisted on prominently praying at the 50-yard line immediately after football games.  The court said in part:
The ensuing dispute has highlighted a tension in the First Amendment between a public-school educator’s right to free religious expression and their school’s right to restrict that expression when it violates the Establishment Clause....
Given this practical assessment of Kennedy’s duties as a coach, the Court must hold that his prayers at the 50-yard line were not constitutionally protected.... Like the front of a classroom or the center of a stage, the 50-yard line of a football field is an expressive focal point from which school-sanctioned communications regularly emanate. If a teacher lingers at the front of the classroom following a lesson, or a director takes center stage after a performance, a reasonable onlooker would interpret their speech from that location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before it. The same is true for Kennedy’s prayer from the 50-yard line....
Here, Kennedy’s practice of praying at the 50-yard line fails both the endorsement and coercion tests and violates the Establishment Clause. While it may not convey school approval as universally as a public announcement system, speech from the center of the football field immediately after each game also conveys official sanction. This is even more true when Kennedy is joined by students or adults to create a group of worshippers in a place the school controls access to.
The case, at the preliminary injunction stage, has already worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where certiorari was denied, but with an unusual 6-page concurring statement by 4 justices. (See prior posting.) Kitsap Sun reports on yesterday's district court decision.