Legendary football coach Bobby Bowden is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to let Joe Kennedy pray.
Kennedy is the football coach who was removed from his job at a Bremerton, Washington, high school because of the district’s “hostile” attitude toward his prayers, which took place after the field had cleared after the end of games.
Kennedy has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the school’s punishment and a lower-court decision, and now Bowden has put his name on a friend-of-the-court brief asking the court to act.
He is joined by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, attorneys general from a dozen states, the Texas High School Coaches Association and members of Congress.
It is Bowden’s legacy that carries weight for many football fans.
He amassed nearly 360 regular season college football victories during his career, with a .740 percent winning percentage. He also led his teams to college bowl appearances 33 times, winning 22 times and tying once.
He’s the author of the books “Called the Coach” and “Wisdom of Faith.”
Kennedy is being represented by the non-profit legal group First Liberty.
“Coach Bowden knows – better than most – the importance of prayer in the life of a football coach,” said Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty. “Banning all coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution.
“No coach in this country should have to set down their faith when they pick up their whistle.”
Bowden said he is honored to support Kennedy “and his right to pray in public.”
“I’m happy to place my name next to Coach Kennedy in front of the Supreme Court. No matter what their decision is, in my book, he is winning where it counts,” he said.
The brief urging the Supreme Court to take Kennedy’s case contends the Circuit Court that affirmed the high school’s punishment has “removed all First Amendment protections from high school coaches.”
The brief states: “Any objective observer familiar with the full history and context of Coach Kennedy’s activities would view Coach Kennedy’s actions as one aspect of the broader post-game rituals and not as the district’s endorsement of Christianity. In fact, the district’s policies on religious expression have the opposite of their stated intended effect. A reasonable observer, familiar with the history and context of Coach Kennedy’s activities, and the district’s corresponding positions, would likely conclude that the district is hostile toward religion.
“But that need not be so. The district ‘itself has control over any impressions it gives its students’ and could send a clear message that it respects but does not endorse Coach Kennedy’s silent prayer. Instead, the district and the Circuit Court have removed all First Amendment protections from high school coaches on the faulty premise that a reasonable observer with knowledge of Coach Kennedy’s post-game activities would presume the district was endorsing both his motivational and religious messages.
“That is simply not so, and the court should accept review in order to clarify and amplify the fundamental principle that schools do not endorse everything they fail to censor.”
The filing argues the lower-court decision denies religiously observant teachers and coaches of their First Amendment rights.
Bowden, the brief notes, coached thousands of student-athletes at multiple public colleges and universities.
“Coach Bowden is also a devout Christian. He has said faith “is the most important thing in my life. … I was raised with that as the most important thing in the world.’ … Above all else, he credits his coaching success to his dedication to and freedom to express his religious faith.”
When he saw the Kennedy case developing, he wanted to speak out, because the controversy “will, no doubt, impact the religious rights of thousands of public school coaches.”
“He believes that no coach should have to set down their faith when they pick up a whistle.”
The brief seeks a ruling that there is “no bright-line rule” that requires observant public school employees to refrain entirely from personal religious expression in the presence of students.
The district’s policy eliminates the ability of a religiously observant coach to be a “mentor, counselor, or pseudo-parental figure” to players.
“Coaches, like Kennedy and Bowden, are active in their student-athletes lives; student-athletes can count on these coaches for guidance when they can’t go to, or don’t have, a parent at home. It is in the fulfillment of these unique, personal roles that a coach’s fiaith and spiritual identity is crucial.”
The district “strips them of their faith.”
The filing contends the lower courts’ decision would “prevent an observant Muslim from wearing a hijab, an observant Jew from wearing a yarmulke, or an observant Christian from wearing a cross.”
And that, the filing contends, goes too far.
“Broadly speaking, it prevents any school employee from even acknowledging that they are religiously observant … and it explicitly promotes secularism.”
The district even decided to “promote one religion over another” by allowing a Buddhist coach to recite a chant after games.
First Liberty contends Kennedy has the Constitution on his side.
“The First Amendment prohibits a school district from being hostile toward religious beliefs and expression. The proper role of a school district is to remain neutral and accommodating toward private religious beliefs,” it said.
First Liberty explained that Kennedy was fired for a 15-second silent prayer.
Donald Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, mentioned Kennedy’s “outrageous” plight while speaking about religious liberty during the Retired American Warriors PAC gathering in Herndon, Virginia.
Public figures such as evangelist Franklin Graham and former NFL stars Steve Largent and Chad Hennings have supported Kennedy.