According to a court ruling, football coaches in public high schools can’t engage in public prayer at the 50-yard line after a game.

The ruling came from a three-judge panel of the federal 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the action of the Bremerton School District in suburban Seattle. The court said the coach, Joe Kennedy, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The coach was suspended.

For several years, the coach would give a motivational speech after the game at the center of the football field. He would hold up helmets from each team, commend the boys for their teamwork and sportsmanship, and offer a prayer to conclude the postgame activity. In 2015 the coach was threatened with dismissal if he continued his postgame prayer session. He was told he could not engage in demonstrative religious activity observable to students and the public . . . so as to avoid alienation of any team member.

The coach defied the school district in defense of his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. Kennedy had spent 20 years in the Marine Corps fighting to defend the Constitution. He said he was going to stand up for what he believed to be right, and would keep up the practice. After the next game, Kennedy went to midfield, once again on a knee and thanked God for his players’ efforts and safety. He urged his players to stay on the sidelines, but players from both teams, the other coaches and even fans joined him.

The school district placed him on administrative leave and his contract was not renewed for allegedly violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students and others. The school district was backed by the chief educational official of the state of Washington.

The 9th Circuit panel ruled that Kennedy was not the victim of retaliation for exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The ruling stated that when the coach spoke it was as a public employee, and his speech  “ was therefore constitutionally unprotected.”

The First Liberty Institute represented the coach in his lawsuit against the school district. His attorney said the appeals court decision will have a chilling impact on a common culture in the sport of football where many coaches and players emphasize their identity as Christian athletes. The attorney for the coach, Jeremy Dys, also said this: “Now all coaches across the country stand under the prospects of being prevented from engaging in any outward display of religion, including bowing your head in prayer. This is not the America contemplated by our Constitution.”

The coach’s attorneys are reviewing their legal options. The case may end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Private schools are not affected by this court case.

The story about this coach has been in the news for some time. The latest court ruling came recently. Information about the coach came from the Missouri Family Policy Council. 

This is another case that makes many people wonder, “What has happened to the country I once knew?”