A Washington state high school football coach who insists he has the right to pray at games has been placed on paid leave, setting the stage for a potential lawsuit.

Bremerton High School’s Joseph Kennedy has a habit of praying frequently with his players. Since 2008 he has lead his team in prayer in the locker room, right before kickoff and after the game at the 50 yard line.

All that coercive religious activity rightly didn’t sit well with some, and Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell recently informed Kennedy that his activities violate the First Amendment. He was ordered to stop.

But Kennedy has thus far been unwilling to abide by the Constitution. While he did agree to discontinue his locker room and pre-game religious activities, he believes he has “an agreement with God” to pray at the 50 yard line after every game. He demonstrated his conviction by defying Leavell’s warning and leading a midfield prayer October 16.

For his refusal to accept that he is a public school employee who does not have the right to pressure students into praying, Kennedy was suspended last night ahead of his team’s game today.

In a statement, the district said Kennedy did not comply with the “District’s lawful and constitutionally-required directives that he refrian [sic] from engaging in overt, public religious display on the football field while on duty as coach.”

This could set up a legal showdown between the district and Kennedy, who is represented by the Religious Right legal group Liberty Institute. The Texas-based organization threatened the district before Kennedy’s suspension, claiming “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.”  

It’s true that Kennedy is free to exercise his religion privately. The problem is, praying at midfield after a game is hardly private.

Liberty Institute doesn’t agree. In fact, the group is advancing a bizarre argument that as soon as the final whistle sounds, Kennedy is no longer at a school function and no longer a school employee –  so he can do whatever he wants even though he is still on the field and wearing his coaching gear.   

It’s ridiculous to argue that Kennedy is only a school employee during the game. By that logic, Kennedy would be able to pray before the game and even during practice – yet he has apparently agreed not to do those things. So if Liberty concedes it’s not constitutionally permissible for Kennedy to pray before the game, how is right afterward any different?

The reality is, Kennedy can't just flip a switch and stop being the football coach whenever he feels like it. That doesn’t mean he can never pray. But it does mean he has the power to coerce public school students thanks to his position of authority, which is never greater than at a football game. Praying at the 50 yard line immediately after a game clearly sends a message that players are expected to join in.

In an interesting twist, Kennedy’s defiance has attracted the attention of the Seattle chapter of the Satanic Temple – a group that uses the worship of Satan as an allegory for rejection of the supernatural and the embrace of reason. Chapter Head Lilith Starr said in a media statement released last week that if the district continues to allow sponsored prayer, “[t]he Satanic Temple of Seattle will provide clergy to lead a post-game Satanic invocation on the football field for any student or school staff who requests it.”

It seems the district is not interested in turning the 50 yard line into an open forum, but if it allowed Kennedy to continue his prayers, it would need to allow other viewpoints to pray there as well to stave off a First Amendment violation. Such a system would certainly be chaotic.

The school tried to give Kennedy a chance to keep his job, but it seems he didn’t take the threat seriously. Now he has rightly been suspended. The district may have to go through a legal proceeding before Kennedy can be dismissed, but if he will not stop engaging in coercive prayer the district has no choice but to sack its coach.