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Coach Was Suspended for Praying. Now He’s Taking Action. Here’s Why.

Joe Kennedy, a Seattle-area high school assistant football coach, was placed on leave back in October for refusing to stop inviting players for a midfield prayer after games. Now he’s fighting back.

Since he was hired in 2008, the widely beloved coach had a tradition of inviting players to join him at the 50-yard line after games for a time of prayer. The prayer session was entirely voluntary and the students kept their prayers private. Despite the innocuous nature of the years-long tradition, in 2015 the Bremerton School District abruptly decided that the practice was unacceptable.

“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program … Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” read a letter posted by the school district.

At first Kennedy complied, but after seeking legal council on his First Amendment rights, he went ahead with the prayer following the Oct. 16 homecoming game. The school district immediately placed him on paid leave requiring him to discontinue to practice if he wanted reinstatement.

Now Kennedy is taking action, filing an official complaint, the final step before filing a lawsuit, maintaining that the school district discriminated against him and “violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression.”

As evidence of the discrimination against him, Kennedy pointed to the school district’s decision to ignore similar actions of others, particularly the team’s offensive coordinator, who had conducted Buddhist chants in a similar manner but was not suspended for his actions. Kennedy, a Christian, argues that he was unjustly singled out for his faith.

Since his suspension, Kennedy has worked with the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal advocacy group, which maintains that the school district has failed to honor his request for religious exemption under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The group dismisses the idea that the coach’s post-game prayers represent the school or in any way violate the constitutional rights of others.

“There is no lawful prohibition against Coach Kennedy’s practice of saying a private, post-game prayer,” said attorney Hiram Sasser. “The prayers are Coach Kennedy’s private religious speech, and no reasonable observer could conclude that BHS sponsors, endorses, or encourages student participation.”

Here’s the Liberty Institute’s announcement of the complaint filed Tuesday:

On December 15, Coach Kennedy filed a charge of religious discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against Bremerton School District.

In the charge, Coach Kennedy said, “[Bremerton School District] violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression.” Filing an EEOC complaint is a final, mandatory step Coach Kennedy must take before filing a lawsuit against the school district.

Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at Liberty Institute says, “All we are asking is for Coach Kennedy to be allowed to pray silently, for thirty seconds, at the fifty-yard line after the game. We are committed to defending his rights to private religious expression. No one should be suspended from their job over a moment of silence.”

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