An assistant high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash. became the center of a national controversy after school district officials asked him to stop leading public Christian prayers on the 50-yard line after games and Fox News got ahold of the story. Coach Joe Kennedy did not stop the prayers, and guess what? The district has put him on administrative leave, the Seattle Times reports.
On Wednesday, the District issued a statement explaining that Kennedy had been placed on leave and would continue to be employed with the district for the length of his contract. But he’s not allowed to participate in Bremerton’s football program until he agrees to stop praying in public.
Although members of Kennedy’s team voluntarily joined in the prayers, and no one was apparently forced to participate, the district’s letter points out that’s not the legal standard when it comes to separating church and state-run schools.
“Students can pray on their own; but it is a constitutional violation of students’ rights for a District employee, acting as such, to initiate prayers with students,” the district notes, citing the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe.
Kennedy apparently did stop the team prayers after games, but still insisted on praying at the 50-yard-line himself, even though the district offered him any number of private locations to do so, including the press box at the field.
He’s now preparing to sue the district, represented by lawyers from Liberty Institute, the Texas-based religious-right law firm that Fox News calls “the nation’s largest law firm dedicated to defending religious liberty.”
Fox commentator Todd Starnes, who’s been ginning up controversy about Coach Kennedy over multiple articles, agrees it’s a bummer that the district has “shown such animosity towards a good and honorable Christian man.”
But the district maintains it’s not animosity, it’s the Constitution, stupid. In Wednesday’s public statement, it pointed out that by continuing to pray while coaching, Kennedy is essentially forcing his employer to break the law. Courts have previously found, the district noted, that a public employer’s interest in not violating the Establishment Clause trumps “the resulting limitations on [an employee’s] free exercise of his religion at work.”