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Christian Coach Suspended For Praying at Football Games Hits Back, Files Religious Discrimination Complaint

( [email protected] ) Dec 17, 2015 12:22 PM EST
A Christian high school football coach who was suspended by a Washington State school district after he refused to stop his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line is hitting back, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy wipes his eyes as he talks to the media after a football game in Bremerton, Wash.
AP photo

A Christian high school football coach who was suspended by a Washington State school district after he refused to stop his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line is hitting back, filing a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

According to a report from Fox News, Coach Joe Kennedy filed the EEOC complaint against Bremerton School District, accusing them of religious discrimination for refusing to let him pray on the football field after games.

"BSD violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression and taking adverse employment action against me on the basis of my religion," stated the high school coach in the complaint.

"Moreover, BSD does not uniformly or consistently enforce its discriminatory policy. I have observed other BSD employees engage in visible religious expression without adverse consequences."

Kennedy is being represented by the Liberty Institute, a conservative law firm who agreed to take on his highly-publicized case back in October. The group told Fox News contributor Todd Starnes that the school is guilty of three separate acts of discrimination: The initial policy banning Coach Kennedy from his post-game prayers, his subsequent suspension, and then retaliating against him by recommending he not be rehired.

Additionally, a Buddhist football coach who chants after games on the 50-yard line and other staff members who "engage in visible religious expression" have been permitted to do so without adverse consequences, the EEOC complaint said.

"All we are asking is for Coach Kennedy to be allowed to pray on his own - silently and briefly - at the fifty-yard line after the game," a Liberty Institute representative told the Christian Post. "However, the school district will not allow this, and they refused to meet with us to work this out."

As reported by the Gospel Herald, after each football game since 2008, Kennedy would wait until the players left the football field before walking to the 50-yard line to kneel in quiet prayer for his students after being inspired to do so by the faith-based film, "Facing the Giants."

Kennedy told reporters back in October that his prayers, each about 30 seconds long, would focus on thanking God for a good game and for the opportunity to be involved in his student's lives, and praying for God's blessing on their future.

On Sept. 17, 2015, the school district informed Kennedy that it had become aware of his prayers and ordered him to stop.

While he initially agreed, eventually, with the support from the Liberty Institute, he resumed the prayers, silently praying for 15-20 seconds at midfield after shaking hands with the opposing coaches. He also sent a letter to the school board on Oct. 14, highlighting how his right to pray is protected by the First Amendment.

On Oct. 16, just hours before the game, the school district "responded to the letter by threatening him with disciplinary action if he ever again prayed on school property within sight of his players," according to Breitbart.

However, Kennedy refused to comply, arguing that he fought for the Constitution as a Marine for 20 years, and would show his students that they must stand up for their beliefs - an argument he reiterated when speaking to Starnes.

"It largely has to do with me being a Marine and a veteran - fighting for the constitutional rights of all Americans," he said. "I still believe in America being home of the free and the brave. I haven't seen that lately. We constantly back down because someone could be offended. But that's not the American way. We talk about practicing tolerance and acceptance and diversity yet we are not living up to that. As an American, I can't sit by and let that happen."

That night, as Kennedy offered his post-game prayer, many players from both Bremerton High School and the opposing team joined the coach, encircling him while he knelt.

Over a week later, Superintendent Leavell sent a second letter to Coach Kennedy, informing him that the district was suspending the coach. The letter reads, "Unless and until you are advised otherwise, you may not participate, in any capacity, in BHS [Bremerton High School] football program activities."

In response to their action, the school district received a letter signed by 47 members of Congress denouncing the punishment of Kennedy.

"The Establishment Clause exists to ensure that the government cannot affirmatively impose or elevate one religion over another. However, it does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that government officials proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square," read the letter in part.

"Rather, the Establishment Clause ensures both that the government does not show preference to a certain religion, and that government does not take away an individual's ability to exercise religion."

The Washington Times notes that with the EEOC complaint filed, Kennedy and the Liberty Institute will now wait for the Commission to complete its investigation before they file a lawsuit against the school district.