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“Devastated”: School Stubbornly Suspends Coach Joe Kennedy After Denying Request for Religious Accommodation

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October 29, 2015


Bremerton School District denies religious accommodation, then removes Coach Joe Kennedy for “religious conduct.” Liberty Institute will take legal action.

In a shocking move, Bremerton School District in Washington State suspended assistant varsity football coach Joe Kennedy on Wednesday, only days after denying his respectful request for a religious accommodation.

“I am devastated that the school district is denying me an opportunity to privately and silently pray for my players at the fifty, ”Kennedy said before the news of his suspension broke on Wednesday. “I love my players and I hope I can continue coaching them and being a part of their lives.”  

For the past two weeks, thousands of Americans watched intently as Coach Kennedy committed to praying at the 50-year line after every game—as he has done since 2008—despite his school district’s unconstitutional ban on visible religious expression.

But on Wednesday, the school district put Kennedy on paid administrative leave less than a week after he requested a religious accommodation to allow him to continue to pray after football games, as he has done for seven years without complaint.

Kennedy had been unlawfully ordered to cease these prayers, and to avoid kneeling, bowing his head, or appearing to engage in prayer while in the presence of students.  


PEOPLE OF FAITH NOT WELCOME 


The letter of suspension from Superintendent Aaron Leavell cited Kennedy for “engaging in overt, public and demonstrative religious conduct while still on duty as an assistant coach.”


As a result, Leavell told Kennedy, “You may not participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities” pending “further District review of your conduct.”


However, it is the Bremerton School District’s conduct that will also be under review.

“The school district violated federal law by denying Coach Kennedy’s request for religious accommodation,” said Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at Liberty Institute. “Their violation of the law cannot go unanswered. We are committed to protecting Coach Kennedy’s right to religious freedom.” 

Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel of Liberty Institute, told FoxNews’ Todd Starnes the school district is “sending the message to all people of faith that they are not welcome.”

BACKGROUND—JUST A SIMPLE PRAYER

It began in 2008—the year Kennedy, a retired Marine, was hired as head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach at Bremerton High School. 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 in September of 2015, Bremerton School District told Kennedy that his personal prayers had to stop, incorrectly claiming that his practice of praying at the fifty violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

KENNEDY’S PRAYER IS LAWFUL 

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.

In their demand letter, Liberty Institute informed the school district that Coach Kennedy was well within his personal, First Amendment rights to pray after football games, and they requested a religious accommodation from the school district so that he could continue to pray after games.

NATIONAL OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT

Since that demand letter was delivered less than three weeks ago, support for Kennedy exploded and his story went viral, with thousands of people signing Liberty Institute’s letter of support for Coach Kennedy, and thousands more expressing their support on social media.

Celebrities like Willie Robertson (reality star, Duck Dynasty), Alex Kendrick (Actor and Director, Facing the Giants), Jon Erwin (Director, Woodlawn), and Tony Dungy (former NFL coach) voiced pubic support for Kennedy.

“I want Joe Kennedy to know that I am proud of him, as a fellow Christian, as someone who identifies with where he’s at,” Kendrick said. “I want to say, you’re a hero for doing this.”

“We stand with you, Coach Joe,” Erwin said. “What you’re doing is brave, what you’re doing is right, and we stand with you.”

Former NFL coach Tony Dungy tweeted his admiration for Kennedy.

“I appreciate Coach Kennedy staying true to his convictions. Glad I never faced anything like this in my career,” Dungy’s tweet read.

I appreciate Coach Kennedy staying true to his convictions. Glad I never faced anything like this in my career. http://t.co/FfKGpak8Di

— Tony Dungy (@TonyDungy) October 15, 2015


Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, expressed his support for Coach Kennedy on Facebook.

“We need more men and women with the boldness of this coach! Christians are going to have to take a stand for their faith if there is any hope for the future of this nation,” Graham wrote. Over 25 thousand people post shared his post on Facebook.

Coach Kennedy and his attorneys at Liberty Institute made TV appearances on Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, Fox News with Shannon Bream, America’s News HQ, and CBN. Kennedy’s story has also been featured on CNN.com, USA Today, The Seattle Times, The Blaze, and numerous local publications.

Families have stood outside Bremerton High School in peaceful protest of their actions against Kennedy.

“The huge outpouring of support for Coach Kennedy is beyond encouraging,” said Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of Liberty Institute. “It shows that Americans care about religious liberty, and are willing to boldly stand up for it.”

WHAT’S NEXT

Coach Kennedy, his attorneys at Liberty Institute and local volunteer attorneys announced that they are taking steps to initiate legal proceedings against the school for violating Coach Kennedy’s rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by refusing to honor his reasonable request for religious accommodation.

“I received a great education during my time as a Bremerton School District student,” Volunteer Counsel Anthony J. Ferate said last Friday, “but today, the school district needs to learn a lesson – follow the law, respect the coach’s rights, and let him pray.”

HELP STAND WITH COACH KENNEDY

If you haven’t signed Liberty Institute’s Letter of Support addressed to Coach Kennedy yet, please do so now by clicking on this link. 


To support Liberty Institute’s free-of-charge defense of Coach Kennedy and to restore religious liberty rights in our public schools and elsewhere, simply click here. 

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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.

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