Christian Football Coach Suspended for Praying After Games Following Complaints from Satanists, Atheist Students

( [email protected] ) Oct 29, 2015 02:04 PM EDT
A Christian football coach has been suspended from his position at Bremerton High School in Washington State after he refused to stop praying following a Friday night football game that Satanists had threatened to protest.
Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy wipes his eyes as he talks to the media after a football game in Bremerton, Wash. Lindsey Wasson - The Seattle Times

A Christian football coach has been suspended from his position at Bremerton High School in Washington State after he refused to stop praying following a Friday night football game that Satanists had threatened to protest.

According to the Times Free Press, senior class president Abe Bartlett, 17, and several other students invited The Satanic Temple of Seattle to attend the game to protest the school's tolerance of the coach's prayer, and to force the Bremerton School District to clarify its policy.

The report notes that after each football game since 2008, Kennedy, who is the assistant coach of the high school's football team, waits until the players have left the football field before walking onto the 50-yard line to kneel in quiet prayer for his students.

Kennedy told reporters that his prayers, which are about 30 seconds long, 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.

While the football coach does not instruct students to join him, over time, many of his students voluntarily adopted the practice of joining their coach on the field.

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 Texas-based Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization, 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.

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.

"I've got my eyes closed and I feel all these people around me. I'm like, God, I hope those aren't kids," Kennedy told CNN affiliate KIRO of Seattle and other media outlets. "I'm sitting there and I'm going, 'God, thank you for this opportunity.' And ... if this is the last time I step on the field with these guys. ..."

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."

Almost immediately after, the Satanic Temple released a statement of its own praising the decision: "A big shout-out to the Bremerton School District for taking prompt and decisive action to stop coach Kennedy from continuing to violate the law with his public prayers while on duty," Lilith Starr, head of the Seattle chapter of the Satanic Temple, wrote on Facebook. "By putting him on paid administrative leave and releasing a strongly-worded public statement, the district has sent an extremely clear signal that they will hold fast the line between church and state." 

In turn, Kennedy's lawyer, Hiram Sasser, called the leave a hostile employment action and said the Liberty Institute is planning to sue the school on Kennedy's behalf, arguing the school was violating his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

"We tried to meet with the school officials in person, but they refused to meet. We were only able to have a brief hour and a half call with their lawyer, and the result was a letter banning private prayer just a few hours before last Friday's game," Sasser said in a post reacting to Kennedy's suspension. "It is unfortunate this school district is choosing litigation instead of a simple meeting."