A Washington state high school football coach will continue to host prayers at football games, even though he has been told to quit. Bremerton High School’s Joseph Kennedy says he has “an agreement with God” to pray at the 50 yard line after every game.
The school district doesn’t see Kennedy’s deal with God as binding. Superintendent Aaron Leavell recently informed Kennedy that his activities violate the First Amendment and ordered him to stop his game-time prayers in addition to pregame locker room prayers. Kennedy has held the prayers since 2008.
The coach agreed to stop the latter, but he now says the school has no authority to stop him from praying at games and he has hired the Liberty Institute to represent him.
In a legal demand letter to the district, the Plano, Texas-based Religious Right group insisted that “there is no constitutional prohibition against Coach Kennedy’s private religious expression, regardless of whether students voluntarily come to the location where he is praying.”
Kennedy’s game-time prayers have become something of a spectacle, something he readily bragged about to Fox News’ Steve Doocy last night.
“It’s really incredible to see the whole entire team coming out there and joining us,” he said. “And then it spread from there to the other teams, and now everybody in the league [is doing it]. We’ve had the opposing team, it doesn’t matter if it’s a home or away game, they have joined us out on the 50 for the whole thing.”
That doesn’t sound like a “private prayer practice.” It sounds like Kennedy – and his attorneys – believe they’ve discovered a loophole to legal restrictions on public school proselytization.
The school district has refused to back down from its request, so it’s likely this case will end up in court. Kennedy doesn’t have legal precedent on his side, and his own statements are rather damning. He told The Seattle Times that he thinks he’s “helping these kids be better people.”
The implication, of course, is that Kennedy believes Christianity is necessary to become a better person. There are students at Bremerton High School who likely disagree. And since they’re attending a public school, not a Christian school, they’re entitled to go to class or join the football team without being subjected to proselytization.
Kennedy also cites a Christian film, “Facing the Giants,” as an influence. That’s a problem.
“Facing the Giants” doesn’t exactly provide a sound model for the role of religion in public school, and to its credit it doesn’t really try to. The 2006 film depicts a football coach whose renewed dedication to Christianity sparks a revival amongst his players. But this fictional coach works at a private Christian school, which means he’s free to proselytize as much or as little as he likes. Kennedy is not. If he really is basing his prayer practices on the activities depicted in the film, there’s little doubt he’s violating the First Amendment.
AU has dealt with this issue before. Seven years ago, our attorneys assisted a New Jersey public school district where a football coach, Marcus Borden, insisted he had a right to pray with students. Borden claimed the prayers were voluntary and insisted that had a legal right to bow his head and “take a knee” with players. He lost in court.
It’s time for Kennedy to listen to the school district and prioritize his coaching over proselytization. His refusal to adhere to the First Amendment marginalizes non-Christian players and unfairly subjects his team to national scrutiny. That’s not righteous; it’s self-serving. If Kennedy really wants to emulate his film hero, he should resign and seek employment at a Christian school.