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First Liberty Institute Files Federal EEOC Complaint Against Bremerton School District on Behalf of Coach Joe Kennedy

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December 17, 2015

Bremerton High School suspended Joe Kennedy for praying. The coach and First Liberty Institute responded to school district with a federal employment discrimination complaint.

First Liberty Institute filed a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Tuesday on behalf of Coach Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington who was suspended in October for saying personal prayers after games.

Bremerton School District suspended Kennedy on October 28, 2015, placing him on paid administrative leave and banning him from “participat[ing], in any capacity, in BHS football program activities.”

The suspension came shortly after First Liberty Institute sent a demand letter explaining Kennedy’s rights under the First Amendment—which the school disregarded, and after Kennedy requested a religious accommodation—which the school denied. 

“This is the first step toward holding the school district responsible for its needless and shocking religious discrimination against one of its own coaches,” says Hiram Sasser, Deputy Chief Counsel for First Liberty Institute.

RECAP: PUNISHED FOR PRAYING AT THE 50

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, offered a brief, quiet prayer of thanks for the opportunity to coach.

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 the 50.

But in September of 2015, in response to a compliment from a school administrator who observed one of Kennedy’s post-game prayers, Bremerton School District told Kennedy that his personal prayers had to stop, claiming that his practice of praying at the fifty violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

A PRAYER BATTLE BEGINS

In response, First 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, First 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, 1969)
  •  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)

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

The school district acknowledged that Kennedy does have rights as explained by First Liberty Institute, but expressed their fear that his prayers would be misperceived as an official school activity.

Liberty Institute attorneys offered a simple solution: give a disclaimer at football games about Kennedy’s prayer, thus dispelling any possibilities of misperception among fans. Liberty Institute also asked the school district to grant a religious accommodation to Kennedy, permitting him to merely observe a moment of silence after the games.

But Bremerton School District officials persisted in their own demand that Coach Kennedy cease praying. They denied his request for religious accommodation–incredibly, Bremerton School District believes even a moment of silence is unconstitutional–refused to meet with First Liberty Institute attorneys, and ultimately suspended Coach Kennedy from his position as coach.

AMERICANS UNITE IN SUPPORT OF COACH KENNEDY, FREEDOM TO PRAY

Kennedy’s story immediately went viral, with thousands of people signing Liberty Institute’s letter of support addressed to Coach Kennedy, and thousands more expressing their support on social media.

Kennedy garnered the attention of multiple celebrities, including movie and TV stars, NFL members, and even presidential candidates.

Coach Kennedy and his attorneys at Liberty Institute made TV appearances on Good Morning America, The O’Reilly Factor, Fox and Friends, Fox News with Shannon Bream, America’s News HQ, and many more. Kennedy’s story has also been featured in the New York Times, on CNN.com, FoxNews.com, USA Today, the Seattle Times, the Blaze, and numerous local publications.

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

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

LIBERTY INSTITUTE’S NEXT STEP: THE EEOC COMPLAINT

According to First Liberty Institute attorneys and volunteer counsel for Coach Kennedy, Bremerton School District’s actions not only violate the First Amendment—which guarantees freedom of religious expression for all Americans—but also qualify as employment discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. By filing an EEOC complaint, First Liberty Institute is taking the next step to ensure that Kennedy’s rights are protected.

“The EEOC’s role is to investigate cases of employment discrimination,” said Mike Berry, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute. “We hope the EEOC will investigate Bremerton School District’s religious discrimination against Coach Kennedy, and we look forward to seeing Coach’s rights vindicated.” 

Just last month, The EEOC’s annual Performance and Accountability Report listed religious freedom in the workplace at the top of its priority list, confirming what First Liberty Institute has said for years—cases of religious discrimination are rapidly climbing, in the workplace an elsewhere.

HOW YOU CAN TAKE ACTION—FOR KENNEDY AND ALL AMERICANS

First Liberty Institute fights a daily battle to protect religious liberty for all Americans—but needs your help.

There are three ways you can make a difference for religious liberty today.

 1. Educate Students and Teachers About Religious Rights

The first step in countering the violation of religious liberty rights is to know what those rights are. Attacks like the one Coach Kennedy is facing could be avoided if people more people were aware of these rights.

To learn more about religious rights for students, teachers, and administrators in public schools, click here to read First Liberty Institute’s free Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Teachers and Students.

Click here to read 7 Facts about Religious Rights in the Workplace.

2. Give to Help Defend Coach Kennedy

You can help Liberty Institute prevent more attacks against like the one against Coach Kennedy—and win more key victories—with a monetary gift.

In order to protect religious freedom for even more Americans in 2016, Liberty Institute has set a year-end goal of $2 million. Help First Liberty Institute reach this $2 million goal before December 31 by giving a donation today.

Thanks to First Liberty Institute’s unique volunteer attorney model, every dollar you donate will be multiplied up to six times in legal impact. So your investment in freedom will go a long way.

3. Stand Up and Show Your Support

Thanks to people like you who stay current on the latest religious liberty news, Coach Kennedy’s story went viral in October. But it’s important to make sure America doesn’t forget about Kennedy’s ongoing fight as his case progresses through the legal ladder.

Join the movement, and show your support for Kennedy and religious freedom by signing First Liberty Institute’s Letter of Support addressed to Coach Kennedy.

Spread the word by sharing his story with your social media followers. Connect with First Liberty Institute on social media through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

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