Tonight at Bremerton’s homecoming game, Coach Joe Kennedy, a Liberty Institute client, plans to personally pray at the 50-yard line following the game, as he has after every high school football game for seven years, despite the school district’s order that he stop.
“The school district has no right to ban Coach Kennedy—or any citizen—from praying,” says Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute. “The school is asking Coach Kennedy to choose between coaching his team and expressing his faith. He shouldn’t be put in this position just because the school district misinterpreted the law.”
A PERSONAL PRACTICE PUBLICALLY ATTACKED
It began in 2008—the year Kennedy, a retired Marine, was hired as head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach. After the season’s very first game, Kennedy waited until his official coaching duties were over, and until the players and other coaches cleared field. He then walked to the 50-yard line, took a knee, and prayed, quietly but audibly.
It became a personal practice for Kennedy—something he was inspired to do after stumbling across the faith-based football movie Facing the Giants one night before accepting the coaching job.
Kennedy continued this personal practice at the 50-yard line after every game, privately speaking a prayer of thanksgiving for player safety, fair play, and spirited competition. After a few games, some students asked Kennedy what he was doing.
“I was thanking God for you guys,” Kennedy recalls telling his players. “Then a couple said they were Christians and asked if they could join. I responded, ‘It’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.’”
Before long, the majority of the team and the other coaches were voluntarily coming to where Kennedy was praying on the 50-yard line after each game. Of their own volition, the students began inviting the opposing team to come to the 50-yard line as well.
Kennedy never announced his personal practice, and never encouraged or discouraged students from participating or coming to where he prays.
But just last month, the superintendent of Bremerton High informed Kennedy that he must stop personally praying.
MISTAKEN INTERPRETATION—WHY THE SCHOOL IS WRONG
In September of 2015, the superintendent of Bremerton High School sent Coach Kennedy a letter, stating that his practice of praying at the 50-yard line violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In response, Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to the Bremerton School District on October 14, informing them of their grave misinterpretations of First Amendment and cited court decisions.
Providing a detailed explanation of several federal court decisions dealing with the rights of school administrators, Liberty Institute informed the District that:
· Teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression upon entering the schoolhouse (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, 1916)
· The First Amendment protects religious activity that is initiated by individuals acting privately, like Coach Kennedy during his post-game prayers (Everson v. Board of Education, 1947)
· The government may not restrict the speech of private individuals for the sole reason that their speech is religious (Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 2001)
· That speech by a public employee—including a teacher—does not always represent or appear to represent the views of the state (Tucker v. California Department of Education, 1996)
These are just a sample of the court decisions that have set the precedent in favor of Coach Kennedy and his religious liberty rights.
Thus, Liberty Institute demanded that the District’s letter and prayer ban be rescinded, informing them that Coach Kennedy will continue his practice of praying personally after games, beginning October 16, 2015.
With constitutional law, the town of Bremerton, and Liberty Institute on his side, Coach Kennedy plans to offer his personal prayer as usual tonight at homecoming—the school’s biggest football game of the year.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The students of Bremerton High School and members of the community have already expressed their support for Coach Kennedy. The first week after Kennedy was told not to pray, over 2,000 showed up at Bremerton’s next home game in support.
Tonight at Bremerton’s homecoming game, the support is expected to continue, as the community stands up for the religious rights of their beloved coach—and all school employees.
Liberty Institute hopes that the District will recognize their mistake, rescind their letter, and allow Coach Kennedy to continue his post-game ritual. If they do not, we are committed to defending Coach Kennedy and restoring his constitutional religious liberty rights.
If you would like to join us and thousands more who stand behind Coach Kennedy, please click here to sign the letter of support and encouragement addressed to Coach Kennedy.
If you have friends or family members employed by the public school system, you can also share vital information with them about the religious rights of teachers and students by directing them to our free, online Religious Liberty Protection Kits.
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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.