ERLC files brief defending high school coach’s First Amendment rights

September 28, 2018

Joseph Kennedy was a high school football coach in Washington state who was fired for kneeling by himself at midfield after a game and saying a quiet prayer by himself. Occasionally, students would join him and also pray by themselves at midfield after games. After a series of back-and-forth discussions with the School District, Coach Kennedy was fired.

The federal district court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld his firing as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Coach Kennedy is appealing his case to the Supreme Court of the United States, asking them to take up the basic question of whether public school coaches retain any First Amendment rights when at work and “in the presence of” students.

Last month, the ERLC joined the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Samaritan’s Purse, National Association of Evangelicals, Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, Concerned Women for America, National Legal Foundation, Pacific Justice Institute, and International Conference of Evangelical Chaplain Endorsers in filing an amicus brief (friend of the court brief) at the Supreme Court urging them to take up Coach Kennedy’s case and rule in his favor.

The ERLC joined this brief because religious freedom is an indispensable, bedrock value for Southern Baptists. The Constitution’s guarantee of freedom from governmental interference in matters of faith is a crucial protection upon which adherents of many faith traditions depend as they follow the dictates of their conscience in the practice of their faith.

Our legal argument in the brief is simple: “Teachers’ private citizens’ rights must be protected against encroachment by the stat . . . The Ninth Circuit’s decision sets a precedent that strikes at teachers’ fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly.”

Religious freedom for people of all faiths (and even no faiths at all) is about conscience protection and is vital to our nation’s understanding of liberty. It confuses no one that a public school teacher is both a private citizen and a government worker. So actions taken by a teacher, even on school grounds and during school hours, that are personal in nature (e.g., wearing an armband protesting the death penalty for religious reasons, having a Bible or Qur’an at one’s desk, wearing a necklace with a crucifix) are protected by the Free Exercise, Speech, and Assembly clauses of the First Amendment.

Numerous Supreme Court cases support Coach Kennedy’s case that the Establishment Clause does not require schools to be policed as religion-free zones. Muslim teachers can wear hijabs, teachers can attend student-led religious clubs, and Coach Kennedy can kneel alone and pray after a football game.

The Supreme Court should take up this case and uphold teachers’ fundamental First Amendment rights. The ERLC will continue following this case, update you on its status, and be prepared to file more legal briefs defending religious freedom for everyone.

Joseph Williams

Joseph Williams, a native Tennessean, is an attorney and founding partner of The Peacefield Group, a legal and policy consulting firm in Nashville. Prior to founding The Peacefield Group, he practiced law at the American Center for Law & Justice, advising national and international clients.  Before beginning his legal career, … Read More