BREMERTON, Wash. — A Christian coach in Washington is planning to pray by himself after tonight’s homecoming game following an order from his school district banning students from joining him in the practice.
As previously reported, Joe Kennedy, the assistant head coach for the varsity team at Bremerton High School and the head coach for the junior varsity team, takes a moment after each game to pray at the 50-yard line.
According to reports, Kennedy prays alone of his own volition after the field has cleared and his coaching duties are through, but there are also instances when students and players decide to join him.
He said that after beginning the practice in 2008, several team members approached him and asked what he was doing.
“I was thanking God for you guys,” Kennedy recalls responding. “Then a couple said they were Christians and asked if they could join. I responded, ‘It’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.’”
He said that he never asked students to pray with him, but some desired to, including those from the opposing team.
“They just all showed up one day and the next thing I know, the other team was showing up with us,” Kennedy said.
However, last month, the Bremerton School District launched an investigation into the coach’s practices, and soon sent a letter outlining that some aspects of his religious expression must discontinue. It noted that Kennedy not only prays at the conclusion of each game, but also prays in the locker room with students and staff.
While the district acknowledged that “[e]ach activity has been voluntary” and that Kennedy has not “actively encouraged or required participation,” it asserted that the practices were still unconstitutional.
“I recognize that you and all district employees possess fundamental free exercise and free expression rights under the First Amendment,” wrote Superintendent Aaron Leavell. “However, the courts have held that where there is a direct tension between the district’s need to avoid an Establish Clause violation and a school employee’s free exercise or expression rights, the latter must yield so far as necessary to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.”
He then laid out rules so that the district would decrease its chances of legal liabilities, stating that while Kennedy may engage in religious activity, “students may not be allowed to join such activity.”
“In order to avoid the perception of endorsement …, such activity should either be non-demonstrative (i.e. not outwardly discernible as religious activity) if students are also engaged in religious conduct, or it should occur while students are not engaging in such conduct,” Leavell stated.
While Kennedy has agreed to discontinue the locker room prayer, his attorneys with the Texas-based Liberty Institute state that he has done nothing wrong in seeking to pray by himself at the conclusion of each game. They say there is neither any constitutional violation in permitting students to join.
The Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the Bremerton School District on Wednesday, advising that Kennedy plans to pray after the homecoming game today, and asking that it rescind its restrictions.
“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 mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state,” wrote Deputy Chief Counsel Hiram Sasser.
“[Your directive] is tantamount to a declaration that Coach Kennedy, while praying as you concede he is allowed to do, must flee the scene if students voluntarily come to the same area and pray as well,” he continued. “There is no requirement in the law that Coach Kennedy flee from students if they voluntarily choose to come to a place where he is privately praying during personal time.”
The Liberty Institute says that it may sue the district if its prohibition is not reversed.