The Bremerton, Wash., school district announced last week its decision to place assistant football coach Joe Kennedy on paid administrative leave for praying on the field following games.
In September, the district learned Kennedy, the assistant coach for Bremerton High School, was leading prayers with students on school property. Superintendent Aaron Leavell intervened, allowing Kennedy to continue on in his role as assistant football coach so long as he stopped leading prayers with students.
“Our coaching staff can continue to provide motivational, inspirational talks to students before, during and after games and other team activity, focusing on appropriate themes such as unity, teamwork, responsibility, safety and endeavor,” Leavell said in a statement at the time. “However, talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer. They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member and, importantly, violate the law and our Board policy.”
A few weeks later, a “Texas-based religious liberty institute” informed the district that Kennedy planned on leading a private, post-game prayer following Bremerton’s homecoming game. Leavell once again attempted to intervene, saying in a statement, “Like every public school district in the nation, our teaching and coaching staff is not allowed to include religious expression, including prayer, in talks with students while on duty for the District. District coaching staff remains on duty following games and until players have changed out of their uniforms and released to their parents.”
Despite repeated warnings from the district, however, Kennedy continued on with his post-game prayers. That spurred the district to place him on paid administrative leave last week, citing a Supreme Court decision that barred districts from allowing their facilities to be used for religious expression. In a four-page statement, the district claimed to have offered Kennedy a “private location to use for prayer that does not interfere with his performance of his duties,” but Kennedy has yet to accept the district’s offer. Instead, “his legal representatives have clearly stated in the media that an accommodation that does not allow Kennedy the spotlight of the 50-yard line immediately following games will be unacceptable to him,” according to the district’s statement.
According to the Seattle Times, Kennedy began the prayer sessions alone in 2008, “and they have grown to include players, fans, and other coaches.” The district claims to have been unaware of Kennedy’s post-game prayers “until an employee of another district mentioned [them] to a district administrator.”
While he is on paid administrative leave, Kennedy is allowed to attend Bremerton football games as a spectator, as he did Thursday evening. However, he is not permitted to go onto the field or coach the team in any capacity.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Schooled in Sports blog.