Seattle — It was 15 seconds of silence that spoke volumes.
Coach Joe Kennedy’s 50-yard-line prayer in Bremerton took him from the clashes on the field—to a clash in federal court.
The controversy over religion, small towns and the law has played out for two years. Kennedy was fired after repeated prayers made on public school grounds.
On Monday, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the case.
“When a public school abdicates its responsibility to ensure religious neutrality, you can really have ugly rifts erupting in a school community," said attorney Andrew Nellis, who supports the U.S. District Court judge's decision.
Last September, a U.S. District Court judge in Tacoma declined to issue a preliminary injunction requested by Kennedy. He was asking the court to have the school district immediately rehire him. Kennedy is suing the district, arguing that officials violated his religious rights.
At stake is Kennedy's job. He wants it back, but there are also implications for religious expression for schools.
“The district`s own statements made clear that Coach Kennedy was suspended for kneeling on the field and praying by himself,” Rebecca Rickets, one of Kennedy’s lawyers, said Monday.
Judge Milan Smith, one of the judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was nominated by President George W. Bush in 2006, said during the hearing that the district's argument is weak because Kennedy has been praying for eight years with seemingly no complaint. It's only an issue now.
“Coach Kennedy met with his players and prayed with them in the locker room and was out in the field and doing what you`re saying he`s doing now and nobody said anything to the contrary, I`m stunned. I`m frankly stunned,” he said.
Kennedy's lawyers said that while simply kneeling in silence is part of Christianity, other religious traditions could also be targeted.
“A teacher could be fired for wearing a headscarf or for wearing a yarmulke because that would be expressive activity incidentally observed by students,” Rickets said.
Yet in the past, courts and the Constitution are clear: Separation must exist between church and state.
Kennedy said he harbors no bitterness, though.
"It`s great that we have a legal system and that I actually get to see it work. So just blessed that we got to be here,” he said.
He doesn't want money or sanctions---just his job back.
“I want to be a coach. I want to be out there with my young men,” Kennedy said.
There is no timetable for when the court may rule.