What Does the Constitution Say About a Praying High School Football Coach?


Source: Slate

High school football coach Joe Kennedy has made national news for refusing to stop praying on the field at the end of games. Last week, Kennedy, a coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, was placed on paid administrative leave after he declined to comply with school district orders to stop praying midfield, which he regularly does with players from both teams.* Soon after he was told to stop his postgame prayer, Kennedy conferred with lawyers from the conservative Liberty Institute who are threatening to sue the school district for violating Kennedy’s religious liberty.

The former Marine and coach has prayed at the 50-yard line of the public school’s football field for years, since 2008 to be exact. Students, coaches, and opposing players have come to join him. Evidently it took years for the authorities to notice. But when the ritual came to the school district’s attention this fall, it decided to take action.

In mid-September, Superintendent Aaron Leavell sent a three-page letter to Kennedy laying out two “problematic practices” in the football program. The first was that the coach’s postgame “inspirational talks” at midfield used overtly religious expressions and were conducted while players kneeled. The second was a regular pregame prayer in the locker room. The letter warned Kennedy: “While on duty for the district as an assistant coach, you may not engage in demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to … students and the attending public.” Leavell offered to provide a place for Kennedy to pray—in private — “not observable to students or the public” and cautioned that his “talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer.”

Kennedy initially agreed to this arrangement, then changed his mind after talking to lawyers at the Liberty Institute. Evidently he abided by the school directive for a few weeks, then decided “he had to do what he believed was right,” taking a knee for 15 to 20 seconds at midfield after an Oct. 16 game. The suspension followed.

His lawyers insist Kennedy is not leading students in prayer, just praying himself, and the fact that student athletes voluntarily join him after a game does not transform his action into an organized religious display. On Oct. 26, the Liberty Institute said it would file a lawsuit accusing the school of religious discrimination, and it said it planned to file a charge of discrimination against the school with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Categories: Belief, Religion, Secularism

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