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Despite orders, Washington HS coach prays on field after game

Despite orders, Washington HS coach prays on field after game

Posted 6:12 pm, October 17, 2015, by , Updated at 06:18pm, October 17, 2015
 As Joe Kennedy knelt to pray at the 50-yard-line Friday night he felt a presence around him.

And it grew.

The assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state was being joined by some of his opponents and fans — some of whom had come to the game to pray with him.

After the Knights’ homecoming loss to the Centralia Tigers, Kennedy walked to the middle of the football field, hoping to say his usual thanks to God by himself.

He had been told not to do it. The Bremerton School District had said if he prayed while on duty as a coach he would be violating federal law.

Kennedy, as he has done after most games for seven years, prayed anyway, defying the order. He opened his eyes to find a huge crowd of supporters around him.

It was overpowering. The coach cried as he spoke to reporters.

“I’ve got my eyes closed and I feel all these people around me. I’m like, God, I hope those aren’t kids,” Kennedy told CNN affiliate KIRO of Seattle and other media outlets. “I’m sitting there and I’m going, ‘God, thank you for this opportunity. And … if this is the last time I step on the field with these guys …”

CNN called the school district on Saturday but didn’t receive an immediate reply.

According to the Seattle Times, Kennedy, 46, has never asked anyone else to participate in the postgame prayer. And at first, it went largely unnoticed but players began to join him. One of them is a Bremerton captain. He’s agnostic.

“It’s about unity. We can be mad at each other all we want during a game and get upset, but once the game is over, that all goes away,” Ethan Hacker told the Times. “What (Kennedy) does brings us all together no matter how much we despise each other.”

The school district sees it as a potential violation of law, based on the separation of church and state.

“The district is in no way taking away an athletic coach’s freedom of expression,” Superintendent Aaron Leavell said in a statement posted to the organization’s website. “What we are doing is what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us.”

Leavell didn’t say what the possible punishment could be for Kennedy — whose legal team notified the school district before the game he was going to pray — might be.

The Liberty Institute,a religious freedom legal organization based in Texas, said in a letter this week to the school district that Kennedy is within his rights to pray once a game has ended.

“Accordingly, the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by individuals acting privately, as is the case with Coach Kennedy,” deputy chief counsel Hiram Sasser wrote. He adds later, “No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to midfield to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state.”

The prayer, according to the Seattle Times, is a version of the following sentiment: “Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”

The district said in a September letter to the coach that he would still be permitted to speak to members of both teams after games, so long as the talk didn’t include religious expressions, including prayer.

For several games, Kennedy abided by the directive. This week, he decided he had to do what he believed was right.

Now Kennedy waits to see what the school district will do.

“Whatever happens happens, you know,” he said, according to the Bremerton Patriot newspaper. “But I’m going to be bold in my faith and I’m going to fight the good fight and I want to set that example for every one of the kids if you believe in something.

 

 

The Seattle Times  23 hours ago

 coach, who conducted his traditional postgame prayer in … knelt on the 50yard line after Friday night’s game and prayed. … Bremerton School District and Bremerton High School officials did not return …

Crowd prays with coach as he defies school district

Originally published October 16, 2015 at 10:24 pm Updated October 17, 2015 at 10:48 am

A huge crowd joins in a show of support for a Bremerton assistant coach, who conducted his traditional postgame prayer in defiance of orders from school district officials.

Seattle Times staff reporter

BREMERTON — Surrounded by members of his team, players from the rival Centralia High School and scores of supporters from Kitsap County and beyond, Bremerton High assistant coach Joe Kennedy knelt on the 50-yard line after Fridaynight’s game and prayed.

It was some version of the basic prayer he’s said for years, he said afterward.

“Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”

He said he never intended to become part of the controversy surrounding his postgame prayers, but had to stand up for his right to practice his faith when challenged by the school district.

“I always taught my kids to do what’s right … and fight for what you believe in.”

The school district says Kennedy must stop his prayers, which it says violate the separation of church and state. Lawyers representing the coach say his right to religious freedom is being violated by the district’s rules.

Numerous people at the school homecoming game came to support Kennedy and his longstanding practice of kneeling and praying at the 50-yard line after games, often among a crowd of players and other coaches.

Kennedy initially agreed to stop his postgame prayers, but earlier this week said hechanged his mind after the Texas-based Liberty Institute took up his cause.

Andy Lancaster of Silverdale came to his first football game at Bremerton High on Friday to pray with Kennedy after the game.

“I’m here because I can’t stand ACLU bullies,” he said.

Gordy Byrd, who attended Bremerton’s East High School years ago, said he hadn’t been at a high-school game in 40 years but he, too, came to pray with Kennedy.

State Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, stood next to Kennedy in support throughout the game.

The controversy has played out in public since the district told Kennedy last month to stop his postgame prayers.

Cory Flournoy, 17, a senior who was filming the game for his media class, said students are “sick and absolutely tired of it all.”

“It’s ridiculous that he got in trouble at all,” he said. “The students basically support the coach regardless of their religious beliefs,” Flournoy said.

“It isn’t a big deal at all,” said Brandon Chavez, who played football with the team as a freshman. “I prayed because I’m Catholic, but some walked off. There was never any pressure.”

Brady Beaton, Class of 2013, also said he prayed with the team and said he wondered how it ever “became a thing.”

“They’re making a big deal out of nothing,” Beaton said.

The district argues that Kennedy’s postgame prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which precludes the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It also forbids the government from favoring one religion over another.

The Liberty Institute says the coach’s right to religious freedom is being violated and threatened to sue if the district were to fire Kennedy over the dispute.

Jeffrey Ganson, an attorney with Porter Foster Rorick, the Seattle law firm that is representing the school district, emailed a letter to the Liberty Institute on Fridaytaking issue with how the prayers had been characterized.

Ganson wrote that, contrary to Kennedy’s statements, he did invite other coaches to join him, and that video of an on-field prayer Sept. 14 showed that the prayer began with the word “Lord” and ended with “amen,” contrary to a claim that the prayers did not name a specific deity or end with an amen.

The letter also took issue with the idea that Kennedy is off-duty immediately after the game ends. It said the prayers occur “when students are still on the football field, in uniform, under the stadium lights, with the audience still in attendance, and while Mr. Kennedy is still in his District-issued and District-logoed attire. Critically, at that time, Mr. Kennedy remains on duty. …”

Liberty Institute’s Hiram Sasser responded: “The school district may resolve this issue by announcing a disclaimer that Coach Kennedy is acting in his private capacity and not as a representative of the school district …” Sasser wrote.

Bremerton School District and Bremerton High School officials did not return phone calls from The Seattle Times on Friday seeking comment. An email from the school district included statements from Thursday’s school board meeting.

“I want to be clear — the District is in no way taking away an athletic coach’s freedom of expression,” District Superintendent Aaron Leavell said in the statement. “What we are doing is what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us. Like every public school district in the nation, our teaching and coaching staff is not allowed to include religious expression, including prayer, in talks with students while on duty for the District.”

Kennedy describes himself as a God-fearing former Marine, who served 20 years including in operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq. He said he believes he is “helping these kids be better people.” He says he is not a lawyer and “I don’t know the Constitution.”

However, he said earlier this week, “I spent my years defending it.”

Christine Clarridge can be reached at cclarridge@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8983. This story includes information from Seattle Times archives.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]

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