The former Washington state high school football coach who was fired over his post-game prayers is headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court after a years-long legal battle.
The entire U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has declined to rehear the arguments in his case.
Back in March, a smaller three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit had upheld a lower court ruling that Bremerton School District can ban Coach Joe Kennedy from taking a knee in brief, personal prayer after football games.
Attorneys for the school district applauded the court's decision.
"The Ninth Circuit made the right call: The Bremerton School District was correct to protect the religious freedom of its students and their families," Richard Katskee, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the school district's legal team, said in a statement to Fox News. "The Constitution requires public schools to provide an inclusive and welcoming environment for all students…that includes ensuring that student-athletes don't feel compelled to pray or participate in religious activities to secure their place on a team."
But in an interesting side note, some of the judges on the full Ninth Circuit released a statement supporting Kennedy's free speech claim.
In his statement respecting the denial of rehearing en banc, Judge O'Scannlain, joined by Judges Callahan, Bea, R. Nelson, Collins, Lee, Bumatay, and VanDyke, said, "Yet the opinion, in this case, obliterates such constitutional protections by announcing a new rule that any speech by a public school teacher or coach, while on the clock and in earshot of others, is subject to plenary control by the government. Indeed, we are told that, from the moment public high school football coach Joseph Kennedy arrives at work until the very last of his players has gone home after a game, the Free Speech Clause simply doesn't apply to him."
As CBN News has previously reported, Kennedy was fired in 2015 after his "silent" post-game prayers on the 50-yard line caught on, spilling over to his players and even to opposing teams.
School officials worried that those prayers might give the appearance that the district approved of Coach Kennedy's public prayers, creating a potential endorsement of religion. They eventually fired Kennedy, who calls that act a violation of his right to free speech.
He asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case in 2019, but the high court sent the case back to the lower courts, saying more facts were needed and instead allowed Coach Kennedy's case to continue through the court system.
The case was then returned to the district court for further review. In January 2020, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington granted the Bremerton (WA) School District's motion for summary judgment. Kennedy's attorneys then appealed to the Ninth Circuit. Then the three-judge panel sided with the school district earlier this year.
Kennedy and his attorneys at the First Liberty Institute said the district's order to end his on-field, post-game prayers violated his First Amendment rights, and they'll continue to fight.
"We will appeal and are confident that the Supreme Court of the United States will right this wrong," said First Liberty Institute's Chief Legal Officer Jeff Mateer. "Banning coaches from praying just because they can be seen contradicts the Constitution. Coach Kennedy has been denied the freedom to coach for over five years, but he's never been a quitter. We will fight on."
Back in 2019, Justice Samuel Alito wrote regarding Kennedy's case, "The Ninth Circuit's understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future."
"We are very confident, in light of Justice Alito's previous statement regarding this case, that the court will take this case and side with religious freedom. We anticipate asking the Court to take the case later in the fall," First Liberty Institute's General Counsel Hiram Sasser told Fox News.
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Watch this update on Coach Kennedy's case from First Liberty Institute: