Coach files suit over post-game prayer firing

Religious Liberty | As his former players get ready for another season without him, Joe Kennedy fights to get his job back
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 8/23/16, 02:22 pm

Claiming his dismissal was an act of religious discrimination, high school football coach Joe Kennedy has filed suit against the Bremerton School District. Kennedy is asking the court to declare administrators violated his constitutional rights of free speech and religious expression, as well as the 1964 Civil Rights Act. He also wants his job back.

The district has until Aug. 30 to respond to the lawsuit filed Aug. 9 in federal court in Tacoma, Wash.

Joined in a phone interview by his attorney, Mike Berry of First Liberty Institute, Kennedy said his coaching job was “just something I did”—an opportunity to pour into the players the leadership lessons he learned in 20 years of service as a Marine. His job as coach followed a full day’s work in the shipyards of Puget Sound.

It was a compliment of those leadership skills that drew the district’s ire. After eight years as JV head coach and varsity assistant coach, administrators suddenly benched Kennedy a few games into the 2015 season for a practice he initiated at the close of the first game he coached—taking a knee at center field to say a silent prayer. That solitary act grew to include players and coaches from both teams, all acting of their own volition, according to school documents.

The large gathering eventually attracted unwanted attention. By October 2015, administrators suspended Kennedy. In November, supervisors recommended his contract not be renewed. The district argued Kennedy’s actions as a district employee violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

But Kennedy said district policy regarding his actions was “ambiguous at best” and became fluid as the district seemed intent on forcing an end to his brief public expression of faith.

“They moved the goal posts,” Berry said. “They changed the rules.”

According to the suit, the district “purported to prohibit on-duty school employees from engaging in any and all ‘demonstrative religious activity’ that is ‘readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public.’”

Berry said the district crossed a constitutional line with that mandate. Barring all “demonstrative religious activity” could include things like wearing a crucifix necklace or a Muslim head covering, displays that could be considered promoting a religion.

“No one would make that argument,” he said.

Kennedy said he never asked nor coerced players to pray with him, and evidence supporting that assertion came from two players who told him they were not comfortable joining the post-game prayer. Kennedy welcomed their conversation and said they “showed incredible leadership.” The two eventually became team captains.

The students’ willingness to approach an authority figure—their coach—and discuss a potentially awkward subject stands in stark contrast to the district’s refusal to engage in a similar discussion. Berry’s requests prior to the lawsuit to speak with the superintendent and the school board were met with refusals from the district’s attorney.

“That’s part of the disappointment here,” Berry said. “We tried to avoid this.”

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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