Praying Football Coach Continues to Face Opposition From School Officials

I recently shared about the case of the high school football coach in Washington state who kneels at the 50-yard line after games to utter a prayer of thanks for his players. When we last left Coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School, the school board had ordered the coach to refrain from his nonsectarian prayers.

With the assistance of the Liberty Institute, Kennedy petitioned the board to allow him to resume the prayers at the school’s homecoming game on October 16. The board did not relent, but Kennedy defied the order and prayed anyway.

On October 23, Superintendent Aaron Leavell sent Kennedy a three-page letter informing the coach that he could face discipline or lose his job if he continues to pray after games.

You may not repeat your conduct of October 16, 2015, for the reasons discussed above [the discussion of his alleged violations]. Given the severity and likelihood of liability faced by the District in the event of further violations of these directives, any further violations will be grounds for discipline, up to and including discharge from District employment.

The superintendent has offered Kennedy a place to pray – in private:

It is common for schools to provide an employee whose faith required a particular form of exercise with a private location to engage in such exercise during the work day, not observable to the students or the public, so long as this does not interfere with performance of job responsibilities. For example, a private location within the school building, athletic facility or press box could be made available to you for brief religious exercise before and after games, if this will not interfere with your assigned duties.

Oddly enough, the superintendent’s letters on both September 17 and October 23 point out the fact that the school district does not prohibit employees praying while on the job, yet Leavell remains emphatic in his letter that Kennedy cannot kneel at the 50-yard line and utter a prayer of thanks. In fact, Leavell appears to take offense that Kennedy prays as the band plays the school’s fight song.

The school board has not received any complaints about Kennedy’s prayers. In fact, many Bremerton players stand and pray alongside him after the game, and coaches and players from other teams have joined in as well. In fact, the homecoming prayer huddle included a downright impressive representation for both teams.

Leavell heaps praise on Kennedy throughout the October 23 letter, citing his “positive contributions” to the football program as well as his “motivational and inspirational talks.” The problem the district has with Kennedy is his habit of offering a word of thanks after the game.

The Liberty Institute is standing by Coach Kennedy and continuing to assist him in the fight for his religious rights.

On Monday, October 26, Coach Joe Kennedy and his legal team at Liberty Institute announced that they are initiating legal proceedings against the school for violating Coach Kennedy’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by refusing to honor his reasonable request for religious accommodation.

Mike Berry, Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute, says, “The school district violated federal law by denying Coach Kennedy’s request for religious accommodation. Their violation of the law cannot go unanswered. We are committed to protecting Coach Kennedy’s right to religious freedom.”

What kind of world do we live in when a school system chooses to preemptively go after a coach in order to eliminate some vague future liability? Why are Coach Kennedy’s heartfelt expressions of gratitude a threat in the eyes of the district when no one has voiced opposition?

The flap over a simple postgame prayer when there are so many legitimate threats to students (over at Fox News, Todd Starnes wryly notes that Kennedy is “not even allowed to bow his head behind the bleachers where the kids are smoking pot”) echoes the continued marginalization of Christianity — and religion in general — in our culture. Too many people fear the idea of ceding control to Someone beyond themselves, which is why they see God as a threat.

Here’s hoping — and dare I say praying — that the Liberty Institute and Coach Joe Kennedy will win the day.