A high school football coach in Washington has been placed on paid administrative leave for praying at games after school district officials told him to stop.
School officials said in a statement Wednesday that Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, was put on leave because he refused to refrain from praying on the football field while on duty as a coach.
Mr. Kennedy has reportedly prayed before and after games, sometimes with students, since 2008. District officials recently told him to stop after the practice came to their attention.
Kennedy initially complied with the district’s directive until Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization based in Texas, encouraged him to resume the prayers. His lawyers insist he is not leading students in prayer, but rather doing so on his own while kneeling at the 50-yard line.
"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.” the district’s statement said.
The controversy has focused attention on the role of religion in public schools and brought national attention to Bremerton, a city of 40,000 across the Puget Sound from Seattle.
Dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a letter to the superintendent expressing support for Kennedy on Tuesday. In the letter, the lawmakers cited the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, claiming it “ensures both the government does not show preference to a certain religion, and that the government does not take away an individual’s ability to exercise religion.”
Hiram Sasser, a lawyer at Liberty Institute, told KOMO-TV that Kennedy will likely proceed with legal action against the school district. Mr. Sasser called the paid leave a hostile employment action.
“It’s surprising and shocking,” he told the Associated Press.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.