A huge crowd joins in a show of support for a Bremerton assistant coach, who conducted his traditional postgame prayer in defiance of orders from school district officials.
BREMERTON — Surrounded by members of his team, players from the rival Centralia High School and scores of supporters from Kitsap County and beyond, Bremerton High assistant coach Joe Kennedy knelt on the 50-yard line after Friday night’s game and prayed.
It was some version of the basic prayer he’s said for years, he said afterward.
“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.”
He said he never intended to become part of the controversy surrounding his postgame prayers, but had to stand up for his right to practice his faith when challenged by the school district.
“I always taught my kids to do what’s right … and fight for what you believe in.”
The school district says Kennedy must stop his prayers, which it says violate the separation of church and state. Lawyers representing the coach say his right to religious freedom is being violated by the district’s rules.
Numerous people at the school homecoming game came to support Kennedy and his longstanding practice of kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after games, often among a crowd of players and other coaches.
Kennedy initially agreed to stop his postgame prayers, but earlier this week said he changed his mind after the Texas-based Liberty Institute took up his cause.
Andy Lancaster of Silverdale came to his first football game at Bremerton High on Friday to pray with Kennedy after the game.
“I’m here because I can’t stand ACLU bullies,” he said.
Gordy Byrd, who attended Bremerton’s East High School years ago, said he hadn’t been at a high-school game in 40 years but he, too, came to pray with Kennedy.
State Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, stood next to Kennedy in support throughout the game.
The controversy has played out in public since the district told Kennedy last month to stop his postgame prayers.
Cory Flournoy, 17, a senior who was filming the game for his media class, said students are “sick and absolutely tired of it all.”
“It’s ridiculous that he got in trouble at all,” he said. “The students basically support the coach regardless of their religious beliefs,” Flournoy said.
“It isn’t a big deal at all,” said Brandon Chavez, who played football with the team as a freshman. “I prayed because I’m Catholic, but some walked off. There was never any pressure.”
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Brady Beaton, Class of 2013, also said he prayed with the team and said he wondered how it ever “became a thing.”
“They’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Beaton said.
The district argues that Kennedy’s postgame prayers violate 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.
The Liberty Institute says the coach’s right to religious freedom is being violated and threatened to sue if the district were to fire Kennedy over the dispute.
Jeffrey Ganson, an attorney with Porter Foster Rorick, the Seattle law firm that is representing the school district, emailed a letter to the Liberty Institute on Friday taking issue with how the prayers had been characterized.
Ganson wrote that, contrary to Kennedy’s statements, he did invite other coaches to join him, and that video of an on-field prayer Sept. 14 showed that the prayer began with the word “Lord” and ended with “amen,” contrary to a claim that the prayers did not name a specific deity or end with an amen.
The letter also took issue with the idea that Kennedy is off-duty immediately after the game ends. It said the prayers occur “when students are still on the football field, in uniform, under the stadium lights, with the audience still in attendance, and while Mr. Kennedy is still in his District-issued and District-logoed attire. Critically, at that time, Mr. Kennedy remains on duty. …”
Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser responded: “The school district may resolve this issue by announcing a disclaimer that Coach Kennedy is acting in his private capacity and not as a representative of the school district …” Sasser wrote.
Bremerton School District and Bremerton High School officials did not return phone calls from The Seattle Times on Friday seeking comment. An email from the school district included statements from Thursday’s school board meeting.
“I want to be clear — the District is in no way taking away an athletic coach’s freedom of expression,” District Superintendent Aaron Leavell said in the statement. “What we are doing is what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us. Like every public school district in the nation, our teaching and coaching staff is not allowed to include religious expression, including prayer, in talks with students while on duty for the District.”
Kennedy describes himself as a God-fearing former Marine, who served 20 years including in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. He said he believes he is “helping these kids be better people.” He says he is not a lawyer and “I don’t know the Constitution.”
However, he said earlier this week, “I spent my years defending it.”