Fired for praying after games, a former assistant football coach has sued a Washington state school district for violating his constitutional and civil rights.
Joe Kennedy, who coached at Bremerton High School, argues that the separation of church and state should not bar him from briefly praying on the field. He was suspended and ultimately let go last fall after he refused to stop the practice of praying personally on the 50-yard line. The former coach had done so since 2008, and at times students joined in the practice.
"Coach Kennedy is not motivated to engage in private religious expression in order to proselytize or attract others to his religious faith," the lawsuit said. "Instead, he offers a brief prayer of thanksgiving as part of a covenant he made with God before he started coaching at BHS."
The school district alleges that Kennedy’s religious displays jeopardize it, creating the possibility students could sue for having their own constitutional rights violated. District Superintendent Aaron Leavell said the district believed his actions were “entirely well-intentioned” but were “exposing the district to significant risk of liability.”
The case gained national attention, with several conservative lawmakers voicing support for Kennedy’s right to exercise his religion under the federal Civil Rights Act. Former presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and Ben Carson defended Kennedy, as did Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Legal organization First Liberty Institute, which focuses on cases involving questions of religious freedom, filed the suit.
“No American should have to choose between their faith and their job,” said Mike Berry, senior counsel with the group, on Tuesday.
The school district told the Associated Press it was reviewing the former coach’s suit and did not comment further.
Kennedy is not seeking monetary damages, but wants to be allowed to return to his position and continue his religious practice on the field. After initial complaints about his public prayer, Kennedy had agreed to stop but reversed that decision after the Liberty Institute took up the case.