A high school football coach has filed a lawsuit against his former employer this week, alleging that his First Amendment rights were violated when he was fired for refusing to stop praying at the 50-yard line after each game.
Joe Kennedy, who was previously employed by the Bremerton School District in Bremerton, Washington, said he hopes his lawsuit will result in him being allowed to return to coaching Bremerton High School's junior varsity team and assistant coaching the school's varsity team.
"I want to be out there with my guys," Kennedy told "The Church Boys" podcast, noting he is not seeking any compensation. "I want to be ... coaching these young men on how to become better young men, and doing it through football."
Listen to the coach detail his story here.
Kennedy's battle first made headlines in 2015 after he was warned by Bremerton school officials to halt postgame prayers he had delivered on the 50-yard line since taking a coaching job with the district in 2008.
The problem, according to officials, was that players from Bremerton High School and the opposing team would often join Kennedy on the field as he prayed — a move that was seen as a violation of the separation of church and state.
Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote a Sept. 17 letter to Kennedy telling the coach that, though officials believed his prayers were "entirely well-intentioned," he needed to halt the practice, as he was purportedly violating policy and putting the district at risk, The Seattle Times reported.
Despite these warnings, Kennedy refused to stop praying, claiming students were voluntarily joining him on the field. As a result, he was placed on paid administrative leave in October.
A statement released that same month from the district read, in part: "While the district appreciates Kennedy's many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action, Kennedy's conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others."
It should be noted that the district viewed Kennedy as still on duty while he was praying, as indicated by this extensive Q&A published by Bremerton Schools.
One month after the suspension, the coach and his attorneys with the conservative legal firm First Liberty claimed that Kennedy, for the first time in seven years, received a negative performance evaluation over his alleged failure to follow district policy. He was then not asked back to coach again, they said.
From there, the battle intensified. Kennedy proceeded to file a religious discrimination complaint against the Bremerton School District with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that deals with employment discrimination.
In a press release this week, First Liberty noted that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a right-to-sue letter June 27, clearing the way for Kennedy's lawsuit, that was filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington.
"Bremerton School District’s actions violate Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise, as well as his rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion," the lawsuit alleges.
It's a complaint that comes after an eight-year career working within the district.
In his interview with "The Church Boys," Kennedy described how he first secured his position at Bremerton High School, saying he at first turned down a coaching role at the school in 2007.
"I wasn't sure I was really ready to take that all on," he said of the responsibilities that come along with coaching and mentoring.
In 2008, though, something changed when Kennedy found himself watching the Christian movie, "Facing the Giants" — a film about a high school football team — and said that he suddenly felt called to take the coaching job.
"I fell to my knees and (felt) God really speaking to me (saying), 'Hey, this is your calling, this is what you need to do,'" Kennedy recalled.
It was then that the coach said he made a commitment to pray at the 50-yard line after every game.
"Over the first year, a couple of the kids were like, 'Coach, what were you doing out there?'" Kennedy recalled. "And I just told them that I was giving thanks ... and a couple of the Christian kids wanted to know if they could join me. I said, 'This is a free country. You can do whatever you guys want to do.'"
So, some players joined in, as did members of opposing teams, but Kennedy said something changed last season when he was suddenly told he needed to stop the prayer practice.
Kennedy maintains there was never a complaint from the public and that the entire situation actually started with a compliment from a high school principal from another school. After she reportedly noticed the prayer and told Bremerton officials about it, a debate ensued.
"(She) said, 'Hey, what the football program is doing out there is really awesome and I wanted to share that with you,'" Kennedy recapped.
After that, he said that the principal of his school began inquiring with the athletic director and then the head coach. A mandate to stop praying soon followed.
Kennedy admitted to halting a separate locker room prayer practice after the district began looking into the matter, something that he said was in place before he joined the team.
"I said, 'OK, well we won't do that anymore because I want to be in compliance with what the rules and the laws were," Kennedy said of the locker room invocations.
But he wasn't willing to give up his prayers on the 50-yard line, leading to an increasingly contentious stalemate that will now lead both parties to court. It's a dispute that First Liberty attorney Mike Berry said he finds perplexing.
"As a constitutional attorney, I think it's a terrible decision," he told "The Church Boys" podcast of the district's decision to fire Kennedy. "It's one that doesn't comply with the Constitution or federal law."
Bremerton School District public information officer Patty Glaser pointed the Deseret News to a statement on the district's website in response. That statement, which does not name Kennedy, notes that a "former high school assistant football coach" is suing the district.
"We are reviewing the complaint and will be working with district legal counsel to prepare the district’s defense. Because this matter is now before the federal court, it is not appropriate to discuss this case in the public," the statement reads. "We will rely upon the federal court to resolve this matter, and look forward to presenting the district’s case in that esteemed venue."
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