School Football Coach on Leave for Praying

District says practice threatens students' constitutional rights
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Oct 29, 2015 10:00 AM CDT
School Football Coach on Leave for Praying
In this Friday, Oct. 16, 2015 photo, Bremerton High assistant footbal coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays with his team.   (Lindsey Wasson/The Seattle Times via AP)

The coach of a Washington state high school football team who prayed at games despite orders from the school district to stop has been placed on paid administrative. Bremerton School District officials said in a statement late Wednesday that assistant football coach Joe Kennedy's leave was necessitated because of his refusal to comply with district directives that he refrain from engaging in overt, public religious displays on the football field while on duty as a coach. Kennedy has vocally engaged in pregame and postgame prayers, sometimes joined by students, since 2008. But the practice recently came to the district's attention, and it asked him to stop. He initially agreed to the ban, but then, with support from religious-freedom organization Liberty Institute, resumed the postgame prayers, silently taking a knee for 15 to 20 seconds at midfield.

"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," the district said, adding Kennedy remains employed and unless his status changes, will be paid through the remainder of his contract term. He won't be allowed to participate in any activities related to the Bremerton football program although the district said he can attend games as a member of the public. Kennedy's lawyers insist he is not leading students in prayer, just praying himself and say the paid leave is a hostile employment action. They plan to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. On Tuesday, dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a letter to the superintendent expressing support for the coach. (More Washington state stories.)

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