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High school football coach who was fired for praying after games loses his appeal

(YouTube/First Liberty)Joe Kennedy and the Bremerton High School football team in a screen capture of a video in which they pray after a homecoming game.

An appeals court has ruled against former high school football coach Joe Kennedy, who was suspended his job by a school district in Washington State in 2015 for praying with players after games.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously voted to deny Kennedy's request for a legal injunction against Bremerton School District that suspended him from his job as an assistant football coach.

First Liberty Institute, a religious freedom non-profit law firm representing Kennedy, argued that the football coach has a Constitutional right to express his religion by praying after football games.

The Ninth Circuit, however, ruled that Kennedy "spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen when he kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line."

Judge Milan D. Smith Jr., who authored the panel's opinion, argued that Kennedy's practice of praying constituted a government endorsement of a particular religion because he is a coach for a public high school football team.

"We conclude that Kennedy spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and therefore decline to reach whether BSD justifiably restricted Kennedy's speech to avoid violating the Establishment Clause," Smith wrote.

"Kennedy accordingly cannot show a likelihood of success on the merits of his First Amendment retaliation claim, and is not entitled to the preliminary injunction he seeks," he continued.

Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty, called the ruling deeply disappointing and absurd.

"By refusing to allow any public displays, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is effectively saying it is unconstitutional for a coach to make the sign of the cross or bow his head in prayer when a player is hurt," Dys told the Kitsap Sun. "That is not the America contemplated by our Constitution," he added.

Kennedy began praying alone on the field after games when he first started coaching in 2008, but players eventually started asking to join in. The assistant coach allowed them to join at will and the post-game prayers evolved into a tradition.

The coach was ordered by the district to stop praying in 2015, claiming that the prayers violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. He was suspended later that year after he refused to stop praying on the field, and his contract was not renewed in 2016.

In December 2015, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission granted him the right to sue the school district for religious discrimination. First Liberty filed the lawsuit to have Kennedy reinstated in time for the 2016 football season, but the request was denied by a district court last October.

Kennedy's attorneys are now considering their next steps following Wednesday's ruling. In June, Dys told The Stream that should the Ninth Circuit rule against the football coach, the attorneys would ask for a rehearing en banc, which would allow all nine judges at the Ninth Circuit to hear the case again. He indicated that the case will then be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court if the Ninth Circuit still rules against Kennedy.

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