BREMERTON, Wash. — A Washington football coach was surrounded by members of his football team, the opposing team and scores of supporters throughout his community on Friday as he knelt briefly to thank God at the conclusion of his school’s homecoming game.
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, had been prohibited by the district from allowing students to join him in his seven-year prayer practice, and planned to pray solo after last week’s game. But supporters wouldn’t have it.
“It’s ridiculous that he got in trouble at all,” Bremerton High School senior Cory Flournoy told the Seattle Times. “The students basically support the coach regardless of their religious beliefs.”
When Kennedy knelt down to pray at the 50-yard line at the conclusion of the homecoming game, he realized that he wasn’t alone.
“All of a sudden I feel all these bodies around me and I’m hoping they’re not kids,” he told reporters following the incident as he began to cry.
But it was—along with many others who had come off the bleachers to join him as he gave thanks to God.
“Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them,” Kennedy prayed. “We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”
As previously reported, Kennedy said that when he began the practice in 2008, then praying on his own, 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 Superintendent Aaron Leavell acknowledged that “[e]ach activity has been voluntary” and that Kennedy has not “actively encouraged or required participation,” he asserted that the practices were still unconstitutional. He laid out rules so that the district would decrease its chances of a lawsuit, stating that while Kennedy may engage in religious activity, “students may not be allowed to join such activity.”
But although Kennedy agreed to discontinue the locker room prayer, his attorneys with the Texas-based Liberty Institute stated that he has done nothing wrong in seeking to pray by himself at the conclusion of each game. They opined there is neither any constitutional violation in permitting students to join.
Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the Bremerton School District last Wednesday, advising that Kennedy planned to pray after the homecoming game on Friday, and asking that it rescind its restrictions. However, the district did not do so, but rather forwarded the matter to its attorneys, who advised that “violations cannot be tolerated.”
Attorney Jeffrey Ganson contested Liberty Institute’s understanding of the case, contending that Kennedy had invited other coaches to join him on the field prior to the district’s investigation. He also noted that Kennedy had used the words “Lord” and “amen” in his prayers, despite Liberty Institute’s assertions that the invocations are not religion-specific.
“[A]ny overt actions on Mr. Kennedy’s part, appearing to any reasonable observer to endorse even voluntary, student-initiated prayer while he is on duty as a district-paid coach would amount to district endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause,” Ganson wrote.
But area citizens see the matter differently.
“We have a coach who cares enough to pray about our kids,” parent Julie Cox told local television station KIRO-TV.