BREMERTON, Wash. — A school district in Washington has placed a Christian football coach on paid leave for continuing to pray on the 50-yard line at the conclusion of the game, which he did last Friday when both teams and members of the community joined him in a show of support.
The Bremerton School District released a four-page letter on Wednesday night explaining its reasons for placing Joe Kennedy, the assistant head coach for the varsity team at Bremerton High School and the head coach for the junior varsity team, on leave.
“Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the letter stated. “For this reason, Kennedy will not be allowed to further violate the district’s directives.”
It said that Kennedy will not be allowed to serve as coach until he stops praying on the field. The district had presented Kennedy with the option of praying inside of the stadium in a place whether none other would see him, but he declined.
“He remains employed by the district, and will be paid as such throughout the remainder of his contract term, unless his employment status is changed in the future,” the letter stated. “However, unless and until he affirms his intention to comply with the district’s directives, he will not participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities.”
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.
Last month, the 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 prayed at the conclusion of each game, but also prayed 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.
Last Friday, Kennedy prayed at the 50-yard-line at the conclusion of the homecoming game, and was surrounded by a significant crowd of supporters as he knelt for a few seconds to thank God for his team.
Nearly 50 members of Congress also signed a letter Leavell this week that expressed support for Kennedy.
“The Establishment Clause exists to ensure that the government cannot affirmatively impose or elevate one religion over another. However, it does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that government officials proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square,” the letter read.
“Rather, the Establishment Clause ensures both that the government does not show preference to a certain religion, and that government does not take away an individual’s ability to exercise religion,” it said.