Joe Kennedy, a Bremerton, Washington assistant high school football coach, continued to conduct silent, on-field prayers after games, much to the chagrin of the school district, which mandated Coach Kennedy, in writing, to knock it off. He refused, and now has been put on paid leave. Kennedy can resume his position – only after he signs an acknowledgment saying he will no longer pray in public while on the job.
Reports CNN on October 29: “Kennedy’s case made headlines after the district ordered him in September to stop on-field post-game prayers, saying his years-long practice could be perceived as district endorsement of religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”
Now, just before the Bremerton Knights play their final game of the season, the 46-year-old coach has been forced into making an impossible decision – his career or his faith.
Kennedy said he has been saying prayers, to himself, in the middle of the football field for close to seven years. He says the same prayer as always: “Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”
The Bremerton School District, however says Kennedy’s actions are in violation of federal law governing church and state. This despite the fact Kennedy has never once asked or coerced any of his players, friends or faculty to pray with him.
According to a lengthy letter posted on the Bremerton district website, the school said Kennedy refused to comply with the “District’s lawful and constitutionally-required directives that he refrain from engaging in overt, public religious displays on the football field while on duty as a coach.” The letter says the “District appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program,” and therefore “regrets the necessity of this action,” but said Kennedy’s conduct “poses a genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others.”
The letter then addresses other concerns in a Q&A format, such as why teachers cannot engage in religious deeds, if Kennedy has been fired, why he must seemingly “hide” in order to pray, and discusses Supreme Court rulings and moments of silence.
The Religious Institute, a Texas-based “multifaith organization dedicated to advocating for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society,” sees it differently. The organization wrote a letter to the district, advocating on behalf of the coach.
“Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by individuals acting privately, as is the case with Coach Kennedy,” deputy chief counsel Hiram Sasser wrote. “No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to midfield to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state.”
Kennedy said he has been dropping to one knee at the 50-yard line after games since 2008. Only recently has the school district had an issue with it. After briefly complying with the district’s wishes, Kennedy once again prayed after a game on October 16, drawing the suspension.
His story had already gained national attention, and this time, dozens of individuals prayed with him. When Kennedy opened his eyes, he was shocked to see how many were there with him.
“I’ve got my eyes closed and I feel all these people around me. I’m like, God, I hope those aren’t kids,” a tearful Kennedy told CNN affiliate KIRO. “I’m sitting there and I’m going, ‘God, thank you for this opportunity.’”
Coach Kennedy has not commented on whether he will agree to stop praying after being suspended. Prior to the ruling, he said: “Whatever happens happens, you know. But I’m going to be bold in my faith and I’m going to fight the good fight and I want to set that example for every one of the kids if you believe in something.”
Do you think Bremerton coach Joe Kennedy should capitulate to the district’s wishes?