Update: After this story went to press, the Bremerton School District announced that Joe Kennedy has been suspended from his coaching position.
BREMERTON, Wash. — A Bremerton High football coach, as of press time for this newspaper, still has his job, even though he has defied a school district’s order that he cease his seven-year custom of personally praying on the field after each game.
The school district claims that it is trying to avoid any legal problems that could result from violating the First Amendment’s prohibitions against goverment establishment of religion. But Christian legal advisors who are representing Coach Joe Kennedy contend that the district is misapplying the law and actually stripping him of his First Amendment right to pray after games.
In the meantime, both athletes and community members who agree with Kennedy’s stance have publicly rallied around him, and the whole controversy has brought national media attention. Kennedy’s right to pray after the games was even a subject of debate on ABC-TV’s popular The View program last month.
His practice began in 2008 when Kennedy, who served in the Marines for 20 years, was hired as head coach for the junior varsity football team and assistant coach for the varsity team. After each game, Kennedy walks to the midline of the football field and speaks a brief, personal prayer, thanking God for the game and for the players.
After his very first game, Kennedy waited for players and other coaches to clear the field and for his official coaching duties to end. He went to the 50-yard-line, kneeled, and prayed quietly but audibly.
After a few games, students asked what he was doing, and Kennedy said that he was “thanking God for you guys.” Some of the players said they were Christians and asked him if he could join him, and Kennedy said they were welcome to do so if they desired, but were in no way obligated.
Since then, students — sometimes including members of the opposing team — have continued to voluntarily go where Kennedy prayed.
But two months ago, the district superintendent sent Kennedy an official letter demanding he cease the prayer ritual.
The coach initially backed off for a few weeks but then reconsidered. He said no one forces his players to join in the prayer, but they come because they want to do so.
Liberty Institute, a Texas-based religious rights organization that is representing Kennedy, responded to the superintendent’s order by sending the school district a demand letter on Oct. 14. It explained that teachers and administrators do not lose their private rights to express their religious beliefs upon entering the schoolhouse — or the football field. Nor are students banned from voluntarily joining religious activity involving teachers.
The institute contends that by offering a prayer at the 50-yard line after games, Kennedy is doing nothing wrong nor illegal, nor the students who opt to stand with him.
Kennedy never anticipated the whole matter would become a media and legal firestorm, but he is not backing down. On the evening of Oct. 16, out of protection for his team, he asked his team to stay on the sidelines when he went to pray at midfield after the Bremeton Knights’ homecoming loss against the Centralia Tigers. But when he closed his eyes, he began to sense a lot of people around him. It wasn’t his players — it was the entire opposing team from Centralia and fans — who all joined Kennedy to show their support. News cameras rolled as it happened.
Afterward, a tearful Kennedy said he was ready to lose his coaching position, if necessary, but that he wanted to be bold in his faith and be an example to students of the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs.
“We all continue to cheer Coach Kennedy on,” wrote Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, in his national blog. “He’s the perfect example of courage in a world that desperately needs more Christians to stand up and challenge these repressive dictates. If we don’t use our rights, we’ll lose them!”
On Oct. 23, supporters of Kennedy held signs outside the high school at an afternoon rally, the Bremerton Patriot newspaper reported. Police officers stood nearby as the rally took place at a flagpole a few feet from the public sidewalk. Among the messages on the signs were, “We support your values,” “God is in the Constitution,” and “Prayer needs to be back in school.”
With Kennedy still employed, the school board hopes to come up with a workable agreement, the district said.
In late October, state School Superintendent Randy Dorn released a statement on Kennedy, saying “it’s unfortunate when the actions of one employee affect an entire district.” Dorn also commended the district on the “tough decisions” it has to make concerning the prayer, KCPQ-TV reported.