Lawyer: Bremerton schools have ‘radical rule’ on prayer

Jun 12, 2017, 6:50 AM | Updated: 3:54 pm
Bremerton Coach...
Former Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy. (KIRO 7)
(KIRO 7)

The case of a Bremerton coach who refused to stop praying on a football field with students took another step forward Monday as lawyers argued in court.

The Bremerton School District fired Coach Joe Kennedy in 2015 for refusing to stop praying on the field. Students and players often joined him in prayer, prompting a classic debate of church and state. Kennedy sued the district for religious discrimination in response to the firing.

Dori Monson: Why the Bremerton coach should not be praying with students

Three district judges with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle pressed attorneys for answers to explain why, or why not, a high school football coach should be praying on a football field after games.

“You’re dealing with someone who is unambiguously a representative of the school district,” argued an attorney for the Bremerton School District.

The district’s lawyer said that a coach communicates a message on behalf of the school in his role as a district employee. There is no issue when an employee prays in private, the lawyer said, but things are different when students join in. It can put coercive pressure on students and create a message that the district endorses a religion.

“Public schools must be tolerant and welcoming places to students of all faiths,” the district’s attorney said. “…you can really have ugly rifts erupting in a school community when members of religious minorities complain about, or even separate themselves from a religious practice going on. What the Bremerton School District did here was not just within their right, but their duty to their students, to the entire community of the school district to ensure that it was a safe place and a welcoming place to students of all different faiths.”

Arguments for the Bremerton coach

But the Bremerton coach thinks otherwise, and Kennedy’s lawyers argued that the district’s broad definition of a school employee sets up a “radical rule.” Teachers could be fired for wearing scarves or yarmulkes under district policy, according to Kennedy’s lawyer.

“It is … an undermining of First Amendment protection for public employees … employers cannot restrict employee rights by creating excessively broad job descriptions, which is effectively what the district has tried to do here by characterizing Coach Kennedy as a teacher – plus.”

Kennedy’s attorney further argued that nobody would reasonably take Kennedy’s kneeling on the football field as a sign the district endorses a religion.

This is the second stop for Kennedy’s case. A lower court previously denied his effort to be reinstated as a coach in Bremerton. He has said that the case is not about money.

Information from KIRO 7 was used in this article.

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Lawyer: Bremerton schools have ‘radical rule’ on prayer