FFRF urges Wash. school district to hold firm against praying coach

Bremerton Coach Joe Kennedy on Fox NewsBremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy appeared with the Liberty Institute's deputy chief counsel Hiram Sasser on Fox & Friends this morning.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Bremerton School District in Bremerton, Wash., to stand by its earlier decision to prohibit a coach from praying with students, despite the coach's announcement that he intends to pray at tomorrow's game.

Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy held a press conference yesterday to announce that at Friday's homecoming game, he plans to resume praying on the 50-yard line after the game. The coach made news last month when he came under investigation from the school district for inappropriately praying with students. In a letter, the district notified Kennedy that his conduct was unconstitutional and needed to cease.

However, Kennedy is now represented by the Liberty Institute, a Christian Right group based in Texas. In a letter to the district, Liberty Institute claims that Kennedy's post-game prayers are "private religious expression," and threatens to sue if Kennedy is not allowed to continue them.

Superintendent Aaron Leavell described this ritual in his letter to Kennedy: "Students from both Bremerton High School and the opposing team (along with coaches from the opposing team and sometimes other attendees of the game) are invited to participate in this activity. During the activity, you hold up a helmet from each team and speak while the students and other participants kneel. Your talks have included overtly religious reference, and you acknowledged that they likely constitute prayer."

FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler sent a letter to Superintendent Leavell today (Oct. 15) urging him to continue upholding the parameters laid out in his letter to Kennedy, "which accurately reflect the state of the law." If Kennedy refuses to comply, "he must be dismissed before he has the chance to impose his personal religious beliefs on students tomorrow night," wrote Ziegler.

"Despite the Liberty Institute's letter, it is in fact unconstitutional for public school athletic coaches to lead students in prayer and to conduct any religious activity around their students," Ziegler said. "A reasonable observer would certainly see Kennedy as a representative of the school even immediately after the football game, and the District thus has a duty to prohibit his continued promotion of religion while he is on school property."

Kennedy is already Fox News's latest darling, having appeared on "Fox and Friends" this morning. Kennedy previously told Fox News' Todd Starnes, "I'm not a guy who hides in a corner and does a secret prayer to God. I'm very open about my faith everywhere I go." Kennedy is apparently not very familiar with his bible, in which Jesus specifically tells Christians to pray in secret: "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. . . . But when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." Matthew 6:5-6.

"Coach Kennedy is free to pray silently at any time or in any manner he prefers on his own time. However, while he is at Bremerton High School and has the position of football coach, he is acting as a representative of the school, and therefore must remain neutral on religion," concludes FFRF's letter.

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 23,000 members, including over 1,000 members in Washington.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

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