FFRF steps in after members of Congress back coach-led prayers

FFRF has responded to a letter from 47 members of Congress who claim it’s constitutional for a public school’s assistant football coach to lead team prayer, despite the school district ordering the coach to stop.

The congressional letter, which was sent to Bremerton (Wash.) School Superintendent Aaron Leavell and Bremerton High School Principal John Polm, states they are concerned “over reports that the Bremerton School District views Coach Joseph Kennedy’s tradition of quietly praying at the fifty yard line after the conclusion of school football games as unlawful.”

On Oct.28, the school district put Kennedy on paid leave after he defied the distict’s order earlier in the month to not pray at midfield following the team’s game.

FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel responded to the congressional letter by sending a letter to U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes and U.S. Sen. James Lankford, co-chairs of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, pointing out the legal errors in their letter defending Kennedy and coach-led prayer. All of the letter’s 47 signatories are Republican.

“The Prayer Caucus’s letter is misleading and fundamentally misunderstands the law,” Seidel writes. “Several other federal courts have examined this precise issue and all have come down on the side of students’ right to an education free from proselytizing and not on the side of a predatory adult seeking to use a position of power to impose their religion on other people’s children.”

Randy Dorn, state superintendent of public instruction, released a statement on Oct. 23 backing the school district’s decision. “School staff exercising their right to silently pray in private on their own is fine. But leading a prayer isn’t. School officials are role models; leading a prayer might put a student in an awkward position, even if the prayer is voluntary. For students who don’t share the official’s faith, prayers [sic] the official’s public expression of faith can seem exclusionary or even distressing. What’s more, that official could open the district up to a lawsuit.”

Kennedy is now being represented by Liberty Institute, a Christian Right group based in Texas. In a letter to the school district, Liberty Institute claims that the postgame prayers are “private religious expression” and has announced plans to sue the district if Kennedy is not allowed to continue the prayers.

On Oct. 29, Kennedy went to the Bremerton football game as a spectator, and prayed in front of the bleachers after the game. According to Heather Graf of King 5 News, Kennedy will be “moving forward with legal action against the school district.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation