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On The Front Lines

Where Does Free Speech End and Government Censorship Begin on the Football Field? School Bans Coach From Silently Praying After Games

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Do football coaches have a First Amendment right to kneel and offer up a personal, silent prayer on the field after a football game or practice? More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court refused The Rutherford Institute’s request to safeguard the right of a high school football coach to bow his head and take a knee during a student-led prayer, the issue is back before the courts.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a football coach was prohibited from taking a knee and offering up a silent prayer on the field, after a game, because officials feared his actions could be misinterpreted as an endorsement of religion by the school. The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Kennedy calls on the Supreme Court to better distinguish between what constitutes a perceived endorsement of religion by a school official in violation of the Establishment Clause versus a personal, private expression of faith as protected by the Free Exercise Clause.

Affiliate attorney Christopher F. Moriarty assisted in advancing the First Amendment arguments in the brief.

“Where do First Amendment freedoms end and government censorship begin on the football field? Whether one is taking a knee in silent protest of police brutality or taking a knee in silent prayer, both should be protected by the Constitution,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “For too long, the forces of political correctness have been allowed to distort the spirit and meaning of the First Amendment beyond all recognition, turning the expressive right to freedom of religion into an oppressive act of state-sanctioned censorship.”

In 2008, Joseph Kennedy, a retired Marine and devout Christian, began working as a football coach for Bremerton High School in Washington. After each game, Kennedy took a knee at the 50-yard line and offered up a brief, silent prayer for his players’ safety, what the players accomplished, and the opportunity to be a part of their lives. When some players asked to join Kennedy in taking a knee after the games, he replied, “This is a free country.” The practice continued for years without raising any red flags. However, in September 2015, the superintendent sent Kennedy a letter informing him that any prayer must be physically separate from any student activity and that students could not join him. However, Kennedy persisted in taking a knee in silent prayer after football games and did not prohibit students from joining him if they wished to do so. As the conflict became public, in at least one instance, coaches and players from the opposing team, as well as members of the community, knelt alongside Kennedy on the field. The school district placed Kennedy on administrative leave, with the head coach recommending that he not be rehired due to failing to follow district policy by visibly praying on the field. Both the district court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently upheld the school district’s actions, ruling that they were justified in prohibiting Kennedy from silently praying after games on the field in view of others due to the risk that someone might think the school was endorsing a religion. Weighing in with an amicus brief in Kennedy, The Rutherford Institute has called on the U.S. Supreme Court to protect individuals’ rights to freedom of speech and religion.

The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

Case History

March 03, 2009 • U.S. Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Case of Football Coach Prohibited from Bowing Head During Team's Pre-Game Prayer, Lets Stand Prayer Ban


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