Washington high school football coach vows to defy order for him to stop praying

Football players pray in their dressing room after a game.Reuters

Nothing can stop Coach Joe Kennedy from praying—not even at the risk of losing his job at Bremerton High School (BHS) in Washington state.

Since 2008, Kennedy has made it a tradition to conduct prayers after each football game, according to Fox News. He would walk to the 50-yard line, then pray with the students, thanking God for their safety and for the blessings each game brings.

But last Sept. 17, the Bremerton School District suddenly wrote him a letter, instructing him to stop praying with the students after each game.

"Your talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer," Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote in his letter to the coach. "They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member."

"If students engage in religious activity, school staff may not take any action likely to be perceived by a reasonable observer, who is aware of the history and context of such activity at BHS, as endorsement of that activity," the letter added.

Kennedy found the demand unbelievable. "I'm being investigated for thanking God for the opportunities that have been given me," he said. "It's absolutely ridiculous."

"I spent 20 years in the military defending the Constitution and the freedoms that everybody has," he added. "All of a sudden, I realised that people who work for the public schools don't have the same constitutional rights that everyone else has."

The non-profit organisation Liberty Institute, which upholds religious liberty, also found the school district's letter unreasonable.

"Federal law requires the school district to allow Coach Kennedy to pray privately after the football game. We hope they will do the right thing by following the law and allowing Coach to pray," said Hiram Sasser, deputy chief counsel at Liberty Institute.

Sasser believes that "there is no lawful prohibition against Coach Kennedy's practice of saying a private, post-game prayer." He criticised the school district for banning Coach Kennedy "from bowing his head or even being physically present where students may be praying."

"The prayers are Coach Kennedy's private religious speech, and no reasonable observer could conclude that BHS sponsors, endorses, or encourages student participation," Sasser explained. "This is tantamount to a declaration that Coach Kennedy must flee the scene if students voluntarily come to the same area and pray as well."

Regardless of what the school district demands, however, the vet turned coach insisted that he will still pray. "I'm not a guy who hides in a corner and does a secret prayer to God," he said. "I'm very open about my faith everywhere I go."