Joe Kennedy, who coaches football at Bremerton High School in Washington State, has been suspended for praying after a Friday night football game that Satanists had threatened to protest.
A student had invited The Satanic Temple of Seattle to attend the game to protest the school’s tolerance of the coach’s prayer, and to force the Bremerton School District to clarify its policy.
Although Kennedy does not instruct or encourage any students to join him when he prays, the school board had ordered him never again to pray in public.
After each football game for the past seven years, Kennedy, who is the assistant coach of the high school’s football team, waits until the players have left the football field, then walks onto the 50-yard line to kneel in quiet prayer for his students, thanking God for a good game and for the opportunity to be involved in his student’s lives, and praying for God’s blessing on their future. The prayer is very short—typically less than 30 seconds.
Kennedy does not use his authority or position to instruct students to join him. Nonetheless, over time, many of his students have voluntarily adopted the practice of joining their coach on the field. One student is an agnostic and the son of an atheist, but he also joins the coach on the field because he regards it as a team-building and uplifting activity that he supports alongside his believing teammates.
Although this has been Kennedy’s practice since 2008, on Sept. 17, 2015, the school district informed him that it had become aware of his prayers and ordered him to stop. “Each activity has been voluntary,” Superintendent Aaron Leavell admitted in his letter, but nonetheless claimed the activity is in violation of the school district’s policy.
Coach Kennedy sought legal help, and the largest law firm in the United States exclusively dedicated to protecting religious liberty in America, Liberty Institute, sent a letter to the school board on Oct. 14, explaining U.S. Supreme Court precedent on First Amendment rights, and why those cases protect the coach’s right to offer his personal prayers.
On Oct. 16, just hours before the game, the school district responded to the letter by threatening him with disciplinary action if he ever again prayed on school property within sight of his players. But Kennedy, who is a 20-year Marine veteran, remained undaunted, saying that he fought for the Constitution for 20 years, and would by his example show his students that they need to stand up for what they believe.
That night, Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser accompanied Kennedy onto the field as he offered his post-game prayer. Many Bremerton High School players walked back onto the field to support their coach, and many players from the opposing team joined their former opponents, circling around the embattled coach while he knelt in prayer.
On Oct. 26, Liberty Institute informed the school board that Kennedy’s attorneys are treating the district’s letter as an employer’s refusal to accommodate the coach’s religious beliefs, and that they would accordingly be filing a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for violating Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Late on Oct. 28, Superintendent Leavell responded with a letter to Coach Kennedy, informing him that the district was suspending the coach. The letter reads, “Unless and until you are advised otherwise, you may not participate, in any capacity, in BHS [Bremerton High School] football program activities.”
Liberty Institute’s Sasser sent this statement to Breitbart News: “We tried to meet with the school officials in-person but they refused to meet. We were only able to have a brief hour and half call with their lawyer, and the result was a letter banning private prayer just a few hours before [the recent] game. It is unfortunate this school district is choosing litigation instead of a simple meeting.”