Making Our Children Weak—How Violating the Religious Rights of Teachers like Joe Kennedy Harms Society

November 5, 2015

by Mike Berry

From high school students to presidential candidates, people are acknowledging the constitutional rights of Americans like Coach Joe Kennedy—the high school football coach suspended from his job last week for praying on the football field after the conclusion of the game—to freely exercise their religion. But Bremerton School District doesn’t seem to get the message.

Advised by Liberty Institute last month that his seven-year practice of personally praying at the 50-yard-line after football games was constitutional, Kennedy continued his practice, even after Bremerton School District in Washington State threatened to punish him in September if he did not stop.

Despite a demand letter from Liberty Institute carefully explaining why Kennedy’s prayer is protected by the Constitution and court precedent, and offers from Liberty Institute attorneys to meet with the superintendent on amicable terms, the school bulldozed Kennedy’s rights with their off-base agenda—first denying Kennedy’s request for a religious accommodation, and then placing him on administrative leave just hours before his team’s last game of the regular season.

By relentlessly clinging to a gross misinterpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, Bremerton School District is violating the first freedom the First Amendment was intended to protect—religious freedom. It’s ironic, but not uncommon.

In today’s America, the Establishment Clause is frequently wielded as a sword—unwittingly by the misinformed and harshly by the hostile—to slash every expression of personal religious belief from public life.

In public schools, the misinformation (and in some cases, hostility) is especially rampant. And unless the misinformation is countered with truth, the ramifications will be detrimental to our children and our society.

In a place where students should be taught to value freedoms granted by the First Amendment, they are instead given a skewed interpretation of what the First Amendment means.

In a place where students should learn tolerance and appreciation for America’s historically diverse religious composition, they are instead taught that diversity of religious beliefs—and the expression of those beliefs—has no place outside the four walls of a church or someone’s home.

In a place where students should be taught to celebrate their individuality, defy bullies, and resist peer pressure, they are instead taught that staying true to one’s most closely-held religious beliefs in public is a crime, punishable by bullying from the government.

By defending this imaginary right to not be offended, schools are robbing students of the knowledge of what true freedom actually means. And in fact, it’s insulting.

By seeking to shelter students from any kind of diverse religious expression, schools are teaching students to be weak in their own convictions. How will students learn to stand up for what they believe in, if they see a coach suspended for doing exactly that?

Fortunately, Americans everywhere—including students—are defying that notion, showing their schools that the right to express one’s beliefs matters.

Several social media users have posted to the Support Coach Kennedy Facebook page (which has over 17,000 likes), with pictures of high school football teams and players kneeling on the field before and after games in prayer. Others have shared photos of NFL players kneeling on the field to pray.

One young man named “Nick” posted this message addressed to Kennedy:

“Hi Coach Kennedy! My name is Nick and you probably don’t know this but I was a senior last year at North Kitsap HS. I just wanted to say that your post game prayer was a wonderful experience that we got to share with your team after the game. I may not be a religious person but I appreciate the unity and sense of family your prayer provided. I just wanted to say thank you for providing this experience and thank you for standing up for what you believe in.”

Media coverage of Kennedy’s story hasn’t slowed down, with TV hits on Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, Bill O’Reilly, CNN, and many more. 

This kind of support for Coach Kennedy continues to grow because Americans are waking up. Joe Kennedy woke up to the fact that he had religious freedom rights, even though he was a coach at a public school. Students and parents are waking up to the fact that they have religious freedom rights in school. Across our country, citizens get that allowing teachers and coaches to express their religious beliefs is supported by the Constitution. And more Americans are realizing that it is unlawful to eradicate every visible display or hint of religion from the public arena.

It’s become obvious to most of us. It’s time more schools—starting with Bremerton School District—do their homework.

Mike Berry is the Senior Counsel and Director of Military Affairs at Liberty Institute.

What Can You Do? Read, and share with others, Liberty Institute’s online Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers in Public Schools. Learn what is and isn’t permissible in public schools regarding your religious freedom. Pass this on to students, parents, grandparents, teachers, school officials, school board members, and youth pastors. And help more Americans “wake up” to their religious liberty rights in our schools.

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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

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