Should High School Football Coach be Fired for Praying After Games?
School employee suspended after refusing to stop 50-yard line invocations
The game was over at Bremerton High’s football stadium outside of Seattle. Some team members headed toward the locker room, but others joined assistant coach Joe Kennedy near the 50-yard line. Kennedy knelt down in the middle of the throng, closed his eyes, and began his familiar post-game prayer for the last time.
“Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition, and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”
Kennedy had been saying that prayer, or some variation of it, on the 50-yard line after every Bremerton game since he was hired in 2008. Players sometimes joined him, as did spectators and even players and coaching staff from the opposing teams.
But a few weeks ago, someone made a call to the school board, and Kennedy was ordered to stop his post-game prayers. He refused.
After the game on October 16, the man who had become an unintentional lightning rod in the debate over school prayer was placed on paid administrative leave.
Did the school board do what it had to do to comply with the law, or did Kennedy cross the line?
What the Law Says
The First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Most U.S. citizens are somewhat familiar with the concept of freedom of religion. However, there are limits to what people may do in the name of this freedom. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the government may interfere with certain religious practices that would be otherwise unlawful. For example, people are not free to practice polygamy or human sacrifice in the name of their religions, despite their beliefs about those acts.
In the workplace, employers may have a duty to accommodate some of employees’ religious practices as long as those practices don’t pose undue hardships on the employer.
Government Employers Have a Tricky Line to Walk
Public employers, such as schools or government agencies, may be held to different standards than private employers when it comes to religious accommodations. Because government entities are strictly prohibited from appearing to advance or endorse any religion, their employees may be barred from engaging in religious practices while in uniform, on the public property where they are employed, and while on the clock.
The Bremerton School Board cited two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in a very interesting memo that explained the status of Kennedy’s employment. The school board stated that while Kennedy was not attempting to coerce anyone to pray with him, the Supreme Court has ruled that allowing a school district employee to lead prayer or to join students in prayer while he or she is acting in an official capacity could be seen as an endorsement of that religion.
The school board added that is it not attempting to strip Kennedy of its rights, rather it is trying to comply with the law.
The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based organization that promotes religious liberty, has vowed to sue on Kennedy’s behalf. It claims the school is stripping Kennedy of his First Amendment rights.
Call Us for a Free Consultation
Obviously, cases involving freedom of religion often have extremely passionate underpinnings and complicated case law precedents that require thorough examination.
If you feel that your religious freedom has been compromised by your employer, it’s wise to speak to an attorney who has experience fighting for employees’ rights.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (267) 273-1054 for a free consultation.