Football Coach Refuses to Stop Praying With Students Despite Orders

Joe Kennedy

A football coach in Washington State could be fired after students followed him in prayer on school grounds. Assistant coach Joe Kennedy defied orders that were handed down by Bremerton School District, asking him to stop leading post-football game prayers, as he went on to say “private post-game prayers” on October 16. Surprisingly, Kennedy was joined by a few members of the Bremerton High School football team, who wanted to show him support through their display of solidarity. 

“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 it as rivals and leave as brothers,” said Kennedy.

Only two days earlier, Kennedy had said during a press conference that he would stop pregame prayers inside the locker room, as it was compulsory for all football players to attend those meetings. However, since religious rights group Liberty Institute offered to represent his case, Kennedy, who was hired in 2008, decided to go back on his words and defy the school district’s orders. On October 14, Liberty Institute sent a letter to Bremerton School District, asking concerned authorities to rescind their order that bans Kennedy from leading post-game prayers. The letter also indicated that Kennedy would continue to lead his ‘private post-game prayers’ at the end of the homecoming game.

“I'm going to do what I've always done and I will do my prayer,” Kennedy said before Friday's game.

While Liberty Institute claims that Kennedy could be fired for defying the school district’s orders, Bremerton High School has not yet said what kind of disciplinary action would be taken against the football coach if he continues to pray.

“They haven't threatened me with anything as far as I know,” Kennedy said.

An official from the school district clarified before Friday’s game that Bremerton High School would stand by what it had previously stated, which is why it hopes all coaching staff would ensure their motivational talks are nonreligious.

In September, Kennedy was sent a letter by the school district that raised relevant constitutional concerns about his pregame prayers inside the locker room as well as his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line.

Since 2008, Kennedy has gone to the 50-yard line after every football game to say a short, personal prayer, thanking God for his players and their game. After the first few times, a group of players reportedly asked Kennedy what he was doing and when he told them about his prayer, they asked if they could join, as they too were Christian. Kennedy, who had never received a complaint about his prayers, told the players that America is a free country and they could do whatever they wanted to. Eventually, most of the football team as well as other coaches were voluntarily attending Kennedy’s prayers at the 50-yard line, with some students even inviting members of the opposing team to these religious sessions.

Last month’s letter from the superintendent of Bremerton High School ordered Kennedy to end his seven-year-old ritual after every football game. The school said that it was necessary to send these orders as it wanted to avoid any liability stemming from the violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser said that the coach's prayers were not unconstitutional.

“As long as the kids understand that he's doing that in his individual and private capacity, which is what he's doing, it's perfectly constitutional and not only that, it's a violation of the constitution to tell him he's not allowed to pray,” he said.

Liberty Institute has threatened to sue the school district if it were to fire Kennedy over the matter.

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