A former football coach who was fired because he prayed after a high school football game has filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school district.
Joe Kennedy filed his suit in U.S. District Court in Washington State against the Bremerton School District. The petition claims that he was dismissed from his employment due to religious discrimination.
Kennedy, a former Marine, served as assistant coach for the varsity football team at Bremerton High School, and head coach of the junior varsity team. Following games, he would head to the center of the football field and "take a knee" to pray.
The school district superintendent ordered Coach Kennedy to cease the practice, saying that it "violated the Establishment Clause because of the reasonable perception by students and attendees of the district's endorsement of religion."
The superintendent stated that members of the football team would "suffer a degree of coercion to participate in religious activity when their coaches lead or endorse it."
Coach Kennedy was told that he could only pray in a private area where he could not be seen by players, students, parents, or patrons of the district. He was also instructed that any conversations with students could not include religious expression, and "must remain entirely secular in nature."
Members of the team say that Kennedy initially prayed alone at midfield, and that players voluntarily asked the coach if they could join him. The school district admitted that not a single person in the community ever complained about Kennedy's post-game prayers.
Coach Kennedy decided he would continue to kneel in prayer after the games, saying that he had a constitutional right to freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The school district then placed him on leave, and then chose not to renew his contract.
Joe Kennedy is being represented in his lawsuit by the Liberty Institute. Mike Berry, senior counsel, says that the school district's actions not only violate the First Amendment, but also Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids religious discrimination in employment.
"Citizens who work for government are not banned from praying. That's not the law. That religious hostility. All we're asking is for Coach Kennedy to be reinstated and allowed to continue to pray."
Berry says Kennedy's case is part of a bigger legal debate regarding the free exercise of religion. "Whether you are a cake baker or photographer or a florist, we're seeing people across the country being told your religious liberty basically ends when you leave your place of worship."
"That's what you would expect in a Communist country like North Korea. These people forget we have had freedom of religion in the United States since the founding of our nation."
The after-game prayers offered by Coach Kennedy were brief and a far cry from proselytizing. An example: "Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you've given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition, and we can come into the game as rivals and leave as brothers."
Since Kennedy has been banished from the football field and campus, another assistant football coach has chosen to engage in a Buddhist chant near the 50 yard-line following Bremerton High football games. Yet the school district has taken no action against this coach.
"I just want the ability to go back out there and help these young men, and also have my constitutional rights that I fought for in the Marine Corps for 20 years," Kennedy says.
"Our goal has always been to build our kids up and send the right message about what the sport is really all about, which is making better men out of them."
You can link to the "Support Coach Kennedy" Facebook page through this link:Support Coach Kennedy