OLYMPIA, Wash. — A lawmaker in Washington State has proposed a bill that would provide allowance to athletic coaches and others to pray at the end of a sporting event without obstruction or punishment.
Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, introduced H.B. 1602 last on Wednesday as a response to a situation involving a school district that fired a high school football coach in the midst of a battle over his desire to pray at the 50-yard line.
As previously reported, Joe Kennedy, the former assistant head coach for the varsity team at Bremerton High School and the head coach for the junior varsity team, was placed on paid administrative leave in October 2015 when he prayed at the conclusion of the homecoming game despite an order to cease his eight-year practice.
In December 2015, the former U.S. Marine turned football coach filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging workplace retaliation against his Christian expression in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“It’s a really important issue for me because this is a covenant I made with God—before I even started coaching, that if I became a coach, what I would do is give You the glory on the 50 after every game,” Kennedy told reporters. “And it evolved to be with the kids.”
In August, his attorneys also filed a federal lawsuit challenging his treatment at the high school as his coaching contract was not renewed.
“The legislature finds that defending the fundamental rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion, recognized in and protected by both the state and federal Constitutions, is a compelling state interest of the highest order,” Young’s bill reads.
It therefore prohibits school officials from thwarting or punishing those who seek to engage in religious activity at the conclusion of a sporting event. Those who do so will be subject to civil liability.
“Immediately after a school sports activity is completed or finished by the call of the appropriate referee or umpire indicating the official time for the event has expired, any grounds of the school open to the public after the school day has ended or on a weekend day, including an outdoor sports field, is a designated public forum,” the legislation reads in part.
The public forum will be considered a place “where all individuals, including school sports coaches, student team players, fans, parents and other family members, friends, supporters, and others, may safely assemble to talk with other individuals, including praying with one another, as in other public forums, without fear of prior restraint, discrimination, or censorship based on the content of their speech, or any civil or criminal liability for freely exercising such rights.”
Young told KIRO-TV that he believes his bill passes constitutional muster because it involves an activity that is conducted after a school event is over.
“No. 1, [the legislation] defines when a game ends and it gives school districts immunity for coaches to exercise their First Amendment rights after the game has ended. So from that standpoint, those are well within the constitutional boundaries,” he said.
Young also noted that the bill doesn’t endorse any certain religion or prayer, and doesn’t require anyone to be a participant.
“It simply says we’re going to protect the First Amendment rights of every individual and we’re going to give schools immunity for doing just that,” he said.