The coach refused Bremerton School District orders to stop praying after games. The district says the prayers opened the district up to potential lawsuits.

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In a four-page statement Wednesday, the Bremerton School District said it was placing an assistant football coach on paid administrative leave over a prayer controversy that’s gone nationwide.

Joe Kennedy, the assistant coach, had refused to comply with district orders to stop praying on the field after games. The district said it was bound by “lawful and constitutionally-required directives” about public religious displays.

The district said that Kennedy would remain employed by the district for the term of his contract as the junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach. But Kennedy would not be allowed to participate “in any capacity” in the football program unless he agreed to comply with district directives.

Coaches are on season-to-season contracts, “pending program needs and satisfactory evaluation,” the district said. Kennedy’s contract ends Dec. 5, and he will receive $4,398 for about four months work. Kennedy was hired as an assistant coach in 2008.

Kennedy is not employed in any other capacity by the district. His Facebook page lists the former Marine as a “process improvement project manager” at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

When contacted for comment, Kennedy had Mike Berry, senior counsel at the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, answer on his behalf. The group says its mission is “defending and preserving religious liberty in America.”

Will he sue?

“We’re prepared to take the necessary legal actions to defend Coach Kennedy’s religious freedom,” Berry said. “His religious expression is not something he should hide or be ashamed of.”

Another Liberty lawyer called the paid leave a hostile employment action and said the group would file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The case has drawn attention from around the country. On Tuesday, 47 members of Congress sent a letter of support for the coach to the district. Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, meanwhile, sent a letter of support for the district to officials there.

Kennedy started doing the prayer sessions alone in 2008, and they have grown to include players, fans and other coaches.

On his Facebook page, Kennedy thanked his list of friends for their support. The list has grown to 1,849. One woman posted on the page, “We’re with you coach! Semper Fi!” and many others offered words of encouragement. He also posted that fans should instead direct their support to players on the field. On Thursday evening, the team has a crucial game.

One of his supporters hoped the game would have extra security “due to these people from seattle coming.” He was referring to the Seattle chapter of The Satanic Temple. It had asked permission to hold an “invocation” at the game as part of its religious freedom.

But, given that the coach had been placed on leave, the Satanists said they’d still attend the game in the stands, but not ask to be able to perform their ritual.

A spokesman for the Satanists, PM Case, said about eight of them would attend that game. He said they’d wear robes.
Case also said that a female Satanist planned to come wearing not only a robe, but a black corset under it, and devil horns. The tentative name for her costume is “Lady Lucifer,” Case said. “It’s a sexy kind of thing.”

The district says Kennedy also is welcome to watch the game from the stands.

Kennedy responded on Facebook to the concern about Satanists, saying, “They are just people … Their beliefs are … Well it’s their beliefs.” On Wednesday evening, the assistant coach also messaged Abe Bartlett, the school’s senior class president.

Bartlett is on the wrestling team and a Christian. He also had contacted the Satanists about coming to a Bremerton football game and doing their ritual. He said he understood the culture of praying before a wrestling tournament or after a football game.

“It’s something you have to accept,” Bartlett said

What Bartlett didn’t understand were reports of Kennedy apparently deciding to sue the district.

“He should just be in the stands, enjoying the game,” he said.

On Wednesday night, Kennedy messaged Bartlett.

Related video: Satanists come to Bremerton

In response to the controversy over Bremerton assistant coach Joe Kennedy refusing to stop leading a prayer after games, students invited the Satanic Temple to the game. Kennedy prayed in the stands after the game. Read more. (Lauren Frohne / The Seattle Times)

“Way to stand up! Proud of you. I agree that anyone of any faith should be able to pray to whoever or whatever they believe in. That’s what the Constitution is for. I said I would meet them and didn’t have a problem with them. Their beliefs are their beliefs and is protected by the constitution. I hope you understand that I am not making a “Christian” only stance. It’s a Constitutional rights stance. Anyways it takes lots of guts to stand up for what you believe in. Very proud of your courage.”