For years, Bremerton School District assistant football coach Joseph A. Kennedy prayed at the 50-yard-line after football games and before them as well. Students frequently joined him, and he would also give them religiously-oriented motivational speeches. The school district attempted to punish him for doing all of this; he settled for praying alone after the games. But soon enough, he began praying at the 50-yard-line before everyone had gone home.
So the school district suspended him, and allowed his contract to expire.
Kennedy sued, suggesting religious discrimination under the First Amendment. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the school district had every right to dismiss Kennedy: “When Kennedy kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected.”
Then the Court went further. In a concurrence, one of the judges wrote that the school did the right thing in firing Kennedy.
That is insane viewpoint discrimination.
Kennedy’s job included becoming a “coach, mentor, and role model for student athletes.” It included an explicit job requirement to attempt to create both good athletes and “good human beings.” Kennedy’s post-game prayers originally lasted a grand total of 30 seconds, and were “a brief, quiet prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, sportsmanship, and spirited competition.” Over time, they morphed into motivational speeches given to students of both teams — students who voluntarily wanted to hear him.
The District suggested that these activities violated school board policy that said “staff shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any other form of devotional activity.” There is no evidence that Kennedy pushed students into anything; the school board even acknowledged as much. But the school board insisted that Kennedy not allow students to pray with him at all — that any activity had to be “physically separate from any student activity, and students may not be allowed to join such activity.”
Kennedy eventually agreed to engage in a prayer on the 50-yard-line by himself, but students and spectators spontaneously joined him. Naturally, Satanists — being good Satanists — then suggested that they wanted their own right to pray on the field. The district responded by telling Kennedy that he had to pray only when the stadium was empty. Kennedy disobeyed and prayed immediately after games anyway; the district notified him of violation and suspended him, and eventually fired him.
The Court found in favor of the district. They made two legal arguments. First, they said that Kennedy was acting as a public employee, and that he therefore could be disciplined under that rubric:
Kennedy spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen … the ‘speech at issue’ is directed at least in part to the students and surrounding spectators; it is not solely speech directed to God. … All told, by kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games, Kennedy was fulfilling his professional responsibility to communicate demonstratively to students and spectators. Yet, he “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon the impressionable and captive minds before him.”
Secondly, the Court made clear that it approved the district’s logic — that it wanted religious exercise banned so long as it exerted any influence on anyone. Judge Milan D. Smith, Jr. wrote in concurrence:
The context would bolster the perception that the District was endorsing religion. … Irrespective of the District’s views on that matter, a reasonable observer would conclude in light of the history and context surrounding Kennedy’s conduct that the District, “in actuality,” favors religion, and prefers Christianity in particular.
Now, teachers don’t have the absolute right to do and say what they want as employees of school districts. Did the school district have the right to fire Kennedy? Perhaps so. But to suggest that public schools have an obligation to fire those like Kennedy is a despicable, purposeful misreading of the First Amendment, and a blow at Christianity more generally. Kennedy forced no one; his religious practice inspired many. That’s something good. But for the Left, even the presence of religion in any decent light must be proscribed on the public dollar. The Founders would have been appalled by such nonsense.