The defiant high school football coach who was placed on paid administrative in October after refusing to stop praying on the field has filed a charge of religious discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Bremerton School District.
In a statement issued on Monday, Joe Kennedy charged that the school district, located in Washington state, impeded his First Amendment rights with a ban on his silent prayers at the 50-yard line. The EEOC complaint is the last step before Kennedy could file a lawsuit against the school district — something that his attorneys have said they're willing to do if an agreement isn't reached.
"[Bremerton officials] violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression," Kennedy said in a statement issued through his attorneys with the Liberty Institute, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, Oldfield & Helsdon, PLLC, and attorney Anthony J. Ferate.
The lawyers pushed back against the district's continued ban on Kennedy's silent prayers at the 50-yard line, with Rebekah Ricketts, an attorney with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, saying that she's hopeful that Kennedy's "First Amendment rights will be vindicated."
High school football coach Joseph Kennedy (Liberty Institute)
As TheBlaze previously reported, Kennedy was suspended on Oct. 28, after he failed to come to an agreement with district officials over the on-field prayers that he had issued without incident since 2008. Bremerton School District superintendent Aaron Leavell had previously warned Kennedy about the invocations, informing him of the suspension in a letter.
"Effective immediately, pending further District review of your conduct, you are placed on paid administrative leave from your position as an assistant coach with the Bremerton High School football program," Leavell wrote, according to conservative commentator Todd Starnes. "You may not participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities."
This letter to Kennedy came just five days after the coach received another note from the superintendent in which the district denied a request for a religious accommodation that would allow him to continue on-field prayers.
That earlier letter, which followed Kennedy’s October 16 decision to once again pray again on the field, threatened discipline and potential firing if the prayer practice continued, according to Kennedy’s lawyers at the Liberty Institute, a conservative legal firm.
While he typically goes on the field to pray alone, students and players often voluntarily join Kennedy — and that is what has sparked controversy and concerns over the separation of church and state.
Prior to the move to place Kennedy on administrative leave, Mike Berry, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, told TheBlaze that the coach is prepared to sue under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, claiming that his rights have been violated. The filing of the EEOC complaint appears to be a serious step in that direction.
“Based on their denial of the religious accommodation, we are going to initiate legal proceedings against the school district this week,” Berry said earlier this week. “We’re still hopeful and willing to talk to the district and meet with them … in hopes that we can resolve this without having to resort to legal proceedings.”
In the end, Berry said that he is “committed to defending religious freedom” and that Kennedy isn’t prepared to back down.
According to Berry, the debate over Kennedy’s prayers came about after a compliment from a school district employee who attended a game, saw Kennedy praying and offered praise to the high school principal.
“[The employee] saw them gathered together … he went to compliment the principal and say, ‘This is really great — that’s kind of old school,’” Berry explained. “I think the principal thought, ‘What if we’re doing something we shouldn’t be doing?’”
In the end, Barry said that both he and Kennedy want the school district “to follow the law” and allow for personal prayer on the field.
Kennedy has been praying on the field since 2008; it was that year that he saw the Christian movie “Facing the Giants” and was inspired “to try and make a difference in … kids’ lives.”
“I made a commitment to pray for them,” Kennedy said in a statement to TheBlaze. “So after the games, I am just thanking God for putting these incredible young men in my life, and for blessing me with this opportunity.”
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As for his refusal to back down from his right to pray, Kennedy said that he wants to keep teaching students good values, even if it poses an uphill battle for him both personally and professionally.
“I want to teach my kids those same values; that you have to take a stand for what is right, even if it might cost you,” he said. “So, I can’t not do this. I have to continue to be a role model, even if some think it’s unpopular.”
As previously reported, Kennedy first came under fire in September and was investigated by the district for routinely praying on the 50-yard line after every game, where he regularly thanks God for each and every one of his players.
In an initial letter, the district claimed that an inquiry showed that Kennedy leads prayer in the locker room and that he delivers inspirational talks on the field that generally includes religious sentiment. While voluntary, these activities would pose a constitutional problem, according to superintendent Aaron Leavell.
Kennedy agreed to halt the locker-room prayers, as he concurred that it involved a “captive audience” and was, thus, illegal, but he has continued to push back against the ban on prayer on the field following games.