(INDIANAPOLIS) – Attorney General Curtis Hill says he supports a Washington high school football coach’s constitutional right to express his individual religious beliefs.
Joseph Kennedy was a football coach at Bremerton High School until 2015. In appreciation for that coaching job, Kennedy would quietly pray on the field after each football game ended. Kennedy would also lead team prayers before games, and sometimes included religious themes in his postgame speeches to players.
Bremerton School District, after learning of Kennedy’s practices, told Kennedy that praying with students could expose the district to liability under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. In response, Kennedy immediately stopped praying with students.
Kennedy did, however, continue his solo prayers. The school district then told Kennedy he could not pray alone after football games, either. Kennedy was placed on leave after continuing to do so, and the district did not re-hire him for the following season.
He later sued the school district, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington sided with the school district.
“With its decision, the district court has trampled Joseph Kennedy’s First Amendment right to express his individual religious beliefs,” Attorney General Hill said. “The court’s overly broad application of the Establishment Clause is detrimental not only to Kennedy, but to the individual religious expressions of students and other government employees. Government employers can operate within the boundaries of the Establishment Clause while also allowing employees to exercise their own beliefs.”
The district court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause also threatens to push valuable individuals out of the public sector by targeting their constitutional right to religious expression. Efforts to recruit government employees would be severely undermined if applicants faced oppressive restrictions aimed at their right to express their convictions.
In an amicus brief, the coalition urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to reverse the district court’s decision and render judgment in favor of Kennedy.
The brief, led by the attorneys general of Texas and Alaska, is attached.