A school sports coach fired for praying after games has lost his legal case, with US judges claiming his actions could be seen as state endorsement of religion.
Joe Kennedy, a Christian American football coach, lost his job after rejecting demands to stop praying, bowing his head or kneeling.
First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty group which is supporting Kennedy, expressed dismay at the ruling, saying it suggested other common religious displays were also illegal.
Coach Kennedy has described how he started the practice after taking inspiration from a Christian film about a high school football team.
We are deeply disappointed by the decision.
Routinely praying at the conclusion of a game, he began on his own but over time was joined by players from both teams.
But judges said when he prayed on the pitch, he risked “alienating valued community members”.
Kennedy’s cause was backed by ex-professional American football players who submitted legal papers to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
But in two opinions stretching to 62 pages, the judges said that when the coach knelt and prayed in view of students and parents after games, “he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected”.
And they said that while public prayer was important, “such activity can promote disunity along religious lines, and risks alienating valued community members from an environment that must be open and welcoming to all”.
Mike Berry, Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, said: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision and will consider all options available to Coach Kennedy as we continue to review the opinion.”
He also commented: “According to the Ninth Circuit, it is unconstitutional for a coach to make a sign of the cross or bow his head in prayer when a player gets hurt”.