Bremerton football coach vows to pray after game despite district order

A Bremerton High School football coach said he will pray at the 50-yard line after Friday’s homecoming game, disobeying the school district’s orders and placing his job at risk.

Bremerton High football coach Joe Kennedy, right, plans to continue his postgame tradition of praying on the field. (Sy Bean/The Seattle Times)

By Mike Carter   /  Seattle Times staff reporter

A Bremerton High School football coach said Wednesday he will pray at the 50-yard line after Friday’s homecoming game against Centralia, disobeying the school district’s orders and placing his job at risk.

The conservative Texas-based Liberty Institute has taken up coach Joseph Kennedy’s cause, and its lawyers say they will sue the Bremerton School District if it takes action against him. The institute claims Kennedy’s First Amendment right to religious freedom is being violated by the school district’s order.

The district, however, argues that Kennedy’s long-standing practice of kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after games, often among a crowd of players and other coaches, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which precludes the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also forbids the government from favoring one religion over another.

On Sept. 17, District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote Kennedy that the practice has to stop.
Leavell said that while the district has concluded that his actions were “entirely well-intentioned,” it has also determined that they are in violation of district policies and the law and are “exposing the district to significant risk of liability.”

Kennedy, who describes himself as a God-fearing former Marine, said he believes he is “helping these kids be better people.” He says he not a lawyer and “I don’t know the Constitution.”

However, he said, “I spent my years defending it.”

Kennedy said he was a troubled young man before entering the Marine Corps where he spent 20 years and served in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. He retired from the Marines as a gunnery sergeant and, in 2008, got a job as an assistant coach at Bremerton High School.

He became an active Christian after watching the evangelical film “Facing the Giants” — about a faith-challenged high-school football coach — and has held his postgame ritual at midfield after each game for a motivational talk and prayer ever since.

Kennedy said he has never required his athletes to join him and that nobody is punished if they chose not to attend.

However, after talking to a lawyer friend — who put him in touch with the Liberty Institute — he plans to continue his postgame practice, which he had briefly stopped after talking to the superintendent and receiving the letter.

Hiram Sasser, the deputy chief counsel at the Plano, Texas-based institute, stood with the coach Wednesday and referred to a six-page letter that says Kennedy is within his rights to practice his faith when and as he sees fit.

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As a result, Tony Perkins released this letter:

Football coaches know that victory is often won by taking a knee. Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School in Washington state knows this tactic well, but it’s not running time off the clock that has landed him in hot water. Coach Kennedy kneels to pray at the end of every football game, and it’s got him into enough trouble that it could cost him his job.

As Fox News reports, Coach Kennedy has been praying on the field after each game for years, often joined voluntarily by players of both teams. But last month, Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell delivered notice to the coach that he no longer had freedom to pray in front of students at the football games. Leavell’s directive to the coach contained such warnings as:

  • Your talks with students may not include religious express, including prayer. They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member.
  • If students engage in religious activity, school staff may not take any action likely to be perceived by a reasonable observer, who is aware of the history and context of such activity at BHS, as endorsement of that activity.

As Coach Kennedy’s legal team at Liberty Institute noted, “There is no lawful prohibition against Coach Kennedy’s practice of saying a private, post-game prayer. The prayers are Coach Kennedy’s private religious speech, and no reasonable observer could conclude that BHS sponsors, endorses, or encourages student participation.”

Instead of allowing the coach to pray freely, and allowing others to voluntarily join in, the Bremerton School District wants to block Kennedy from practicing his faith.

Like any good football coach, Kennedy doesn’t plan on punting on first down. The coach plans to continue his practice of prayer, no matter what the cost.

Please join me in making an “extra point” to Superintendent Aaron Leavell by signing the petition below:

To: Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell

I, the undersigned, urge you to fully accommodate Bremerton High School Coach Joe Kennedy’s freedom to live according to his faith. His job should not be threatened because he does it according to his deeply-held beliefs, nor should he be forced to hide his Christian faith on the field.

If you agree with the petition above, sign your name by clicking here.

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