Coach resumes prayer on field, awaits district reaction

by: Henry Rosoff Updated:

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Bremerton, Wash. - Assistant Coach Joe Kennedy had just finished shaking -- after a tough homecoming loss for his team -- when he dropped to his knees and began to pray.

He meant for the moment to be somewhat private, with all the kids around not realizing it was happening, but the players visiting from Centralia had another idea in mind.

They knelt down around him as a sign of solidarity.
 
“All of a sudden I feel all these bodies around me and I’m hoping they’re not kids,” Kennedy said in tears after the game.

Kennedy is now represented by Liberty Institute, a religious rights group, which on Wednesday sent a letter to the Bremerton School District requesting administrators rescind their directive against the prayers.

In September, district officials sent Kennedy a letter raising concerns about his tradition of pregame prayers in the locker room and postgame prayers at the 50 yard line.

Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote that while participation in the prayers was voluntary, "both activities would very likely be found to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, exposing the district to significant risk of liability."

At a news conference Wednesday in Seattle, Kennedy said he agreed to stop pregame prayers in the locker rooms because players were required to be at those gatherings.

But, after first complying with the district's directive against postgame prayers, Kennedy said Wednesday he would resume his tradition at Friday's homecoming game.

"I'm going to do what I've always done and I will do my prayer," said Kennedy.

Hiram Sasser of Liberty Institute said Kennedy's prayers were legal.

"As long as the kids understand that he's doing that in his individual and private capacity, which is what he's doing, it's perfectly constitutional and not only that, it's a violation of the constitution to tell him he's not allowed to pray," Sasser said.

Liberty Institute claims on its website the coach could be fired for continuing the prayers but Kennedy says the district hasn't actually mentioned discipline.

"They haven't threatened me with anything as far as I know," Kennedy said. 

District officials did not return calls to KIRO 7, only sending a link to an online statement that said coaching staff had previously agreed to keep motivational talks nonreligious, and administrators hope coaches stand by the agreement.

The district has refused to say what disciplinary action it will take against the coach now that he prayed. 

KIRO 7 is working to find out what the fallout will be.