A federal appeals court out of the State of Washington has denied an assistant high school football coach’s request to allow him to pray on the 50-yard line at the end of every football game. The coach maintained that, because he is Christian, he is required to give thanks through prayer at the conclusion of each game. He stated that he felt called to do this on the 50-yard line right when the game ended and opposing sides have met to shake hands. While at first he prayed alone, over time a majority of the team started to join him.
School investigates. When school administration received information about the coach’s activities, an investigation ensued and he was warned about possible violations of district policy. The policy stated that “[s]chool staff shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any other form of devotional activity.” For some time, he agreed to pray alone after the bleachers had cleared. However, he later requested a religious accommodation that would have allowed him to revert back to his original practice of praying on the 50-yard line directly following the games, among students, other staff members, and spectators.
Coach violates directives. Before the district could respond, the coach resumed prayer on the 50-yard line. By that time, the matter had generated substantial publicity. As a result, news media attended the next football game to record the events, numerous students and members of the public joined, and some were observed jumping the fence to participate.
Satanic groups wants access to field as well. Soon thereafter, a Satanist religion contacted the district, stating that they also intended to conduct ceremonies on the filed after football games. As a result, the district hired additional police to secure the fields and informed the public that there would be no future access to the field.
Coach found to have violated policy and directives. Ultimately, the district determined that the coach had violated its prior directives and placed him on paid administrative leave. Thereafter, he did not participate in his evaluation and declined to reapply for a position after his contract expired.
Coach files suit. The coach then filed suit seeking a preliminary injunction ordering the district to (1) cease discriminating against him in violation of the First Amendment, (2) reinstate him as football coach, and (3) allow him to kneel and pray on the fifty-yard line immediately after high school football games. The trial court denied the request and the coach appealed.
Appeals court upholds the ruling against him. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision denying the coach a preliminary injunction. To prove a First Amendment violation, the coach had to show that (1) he spoke on a matter of public concern, (2) he spoke as a private citizen rather than a public employee, and (3) the relevant speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action.
According to the court of appeals, it was undisputed that the coach spoke on a matter of public concern and that his speech was a factor in the district’s employment actions. However, the appeals court concluded that the coach was acting as a public employee, not as a private citizen, when he engaged in prayer on the football field during the time that he continued to have coaching duties to fulfill. The facts showed that the coach’s speech occurred during a public event – games were on school property, he was wearing attire with the school logo on it, and he remained on duty at the time of his prayers. Moreover, the court observed that the coach placed himself in the most prominent position on the field, “where he knew it was inevitable that students, parents, fans, and occasionally the media would observe his behavior.” The court determined that the coach took advantage of his position to press his views on the students, which could lead to a violation of the Establish Clause. In the end, the Court ruled that the district was justified in restricting his speech to avoid violating the Establishment Clause and upheld the lower court’s decision in favor of the district.