By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A high school football coach in Washington state has failed to persuade a federal appeals court to let him kneel and pray on the field immediately after games in sight of students and parents.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday rejected Joseph Kennedy's request for an injunction requiring the Bremerton School District, located just outside Seattle, to reinstate him and allow his prayer.
Kennedy, a Christian, said the district violated his constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment, including by putting him on paid leave in October 2015.
The varsity assistant coach's prayers on the 50-yard line had often been joined by players and other coaches, including from opposing teams.
But in Wednesday's decision, Circuit Judge Milan Smith said Kennedy went too far in trying to press his religious beliefs on "impressionable and captive" minds.
Smith said this could promote "disunity along religious lines," undermining the role of high school football games in letting American communities gather to root for their favorite teams and for children on the field.
"The constitutional significance of Kennedy's job responsibilities is plain - he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech was therefore unprotected," Smith wrote for a three-judge panel.
Jeremy Dys, a lawyer for the advocacy group First Liberty Institute representing Kennedy, said his client is reviewing his legal options and may appeal.
"Banning public high school coaches from praying individually in public, just because they can be seen, is wrong," Dys said in an interview. "The opinion leads to absurd results, and could forbid any outward displays of religion by a coach such as making a cross, or wearing a yarmulke or hijab."
Michael Tierney, a lawyer for the school district, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Andrew Nellis, a lawyer for Americans United for Separation of Church and State who also argued for the district, said the district's actions avoided an unconstitutional establishment of religion, a point Smith made in a separate opinion.
"It is a violation when a coach pressures students to follow his particular religious practices," Nellis said in an interview.
Kennedy did not apply for a coaching job for 2016 after the contracts for him and the other assistant coaches expired.
The case is Kennedy v Bremerton School District, 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-35801.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)