A Bremerton High School football coach said he will pray at the 50-yard line after Friday’s homecoming game, disobeying the school district’s orders and placing his job at risk.
A Bremerton High School football coach said Wednesday he will pray at the 50-yard line after Friday’s homecoming game against Centralia, disobeying the school district’s orders and placing his job at risk.
The conservative Texas-based Liberty Institute has taken up coach Joseph Kennedy’s cause, and its lawyers say they will sue the Bremerton School District if it takes action against him. The institute claims Kennedy’s First Amendment right to religious freedom is being violated by the school district’s order.
The district, however, argues that Kennedy’s long-standing practice of kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after games, often among a crowd of players and other coaches, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which precludes the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also forbids the government from favoring one religion over another.
On Sept. 17, District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote Kennedy that the practice has to stop.
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Leavell said that while the district has concluded that his actions were “entirely well-intentioned,” it has also determined that they are in violation of district policies and the law and are “exposing the district to significant risk of liability.”
Kennedy, who describes himself as a God-fearing former Marine, said he believes he is “helping these kids be better people.” He says he not a lawyer and “I don’t know the Constitution.”
However, he said, “I spent my years defending it.”
Kennedy said he was a troubled young man before entering the Marine Corps where he spent 20 years and served in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. He retired from the Marines as a gunnery sergeant and, in 2008, got a job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School.
He became an active Christian after watching the evangelical film “Facing the Giants” — about a faith-challenged high-school football coach — and has held his postgame ritual at midfield after each game for a motivational talk and prayer ever since.
Kennedy said he has never required his athletes to join him and that nobody is punished if they chose not to attend.
However, he also acknowledged that he has also routinely held pregame locker-room prayers, which he now agrees involved a “captive audience” and which have also raised concerns of district officials. Going forward, Kennedy said at a news conference Wednesday, he will no longer hold those pregame prayers.
However, after talking to a lawyer friend — who put him in touch with the Liberty Institute — he plans to continue his postgame practice, which he had briefly stopped after talking to the superintendent and receiving the letter.
Hiram Sasser, the deputy chief counsel at the Plano, Texas-based institute, stood with the coach Wednesday and referred to a six-page letter that says Kennedy is within his rights to practice his faith when and as he sees fit.