School still life with copyspace on chalkboardWritten by Don Byrd

I posted earlier about high school football coach Joe Kennedy, in Bremerton, Washington, who was asked by his school district to discontinue his practice of praying on the field with students after games.

School officials were concerned, and rightly so, that his actions could be coercive and raise Establishment Clause issues. After all, which students would feel comfortable walking away and declining to pray with the coach? Maybe some, but others will surely feel incentive to please the coach, not want to be different, not want to be ostracized, and what kind of religious freedom is that?

Kennedy initially indicated he would comply with the school district’s order. He ceased leading pre-game prayers in the locker room, and suggested he would also stop the practice of praying on the field post-game. So what happened? A religious liberty advocacy group that routinely opposes the doctrine of church-state separation convinced him he was in the right and should defy his bosses.

And so he did. And so he was suspended.

As Associated Press reports, Kennedy is now vowing to press his case.

“While attending games may be voluntary for most students, students required to be present by virtue of their participation in football or cheerleading will necessarily suffer a degree of coercion to participate in religious activity when their coaches lead or endorse it,” Bremerton School District said.

As expected, Kennedy attended Thursday’s game, hugging players over a fence, and after the game, kneeling down and praying with a group of people in front of the bleachers.

Kennedy told media it hurts his heart to be on this side of the fence while his guys are in the locker room. He also said he’s willing to take this “as far as it goes and by doing so says he’s teaching his players “if you believe in something you stand up.”

Meanwhile, student body president – and I suppose future lawyer – Abe Bartlett encouraged the school to make up its mind whether it will invite and allow all religious groups to pray on the field at games or to allow none. 

The lawyers representing Kennedy indicated their next step may be a complaint with the EEOC for religious discrimination. Stay tuned.