Joe Kennedy is a veteran of two wars — but now he’s fighting a new enemy: political correctness. The Bremerton football coach didn’t spend 20 years defending freedom only to have his stolen, but that’s exactly what the school district is threatening. A week and a half after the revered coach put his job on the line by resuming his midfield prayer, the Washington State Education Superintendent is lining up with the opposition.
In a statement late last week, Randy Dorn tried to justify the censorship by claiming that, “School officials are role models; leading a prayer might put a student in an awkward position even if the prayer is voluntary. What’s more, that official could open up the district to a lawsuit.” Well, he’s right about one thing. The controversy has opened up the district to a lawsuit — but from the person whose rights are being trampled.
When the district showed that it had no interest in accommodating the coach’s First Amendment rights, the Marine vet went on the offensive, suing the District for the freedom he risked his life for. With the help of Liberty Institute, Joe is asking the courts to grant him what the superintendent won’t: religious exercise. “I was really shocked,” he told Fox News’s Todd Starnes. “I went out of my way to accommodate them. All I wanted to do was pray — and now I can’t even pray at all.” In a weak attempt at compromise, Bremerton offered to find a space to let Joe pray after games, under one condition: that it wouldn’t be “observable to students or the public.”
Not surprisingly, this hide-it-under-a-bushel option didn’t sit well with the coach, who, for seven years, had never once coerced a student to join him at midfield. “What they are saying is he cannot pray by himself, he cannot simply take a knee at the 50-yard-line,” fired back Liberty’s Hiram Sasser. “That’s like telling a coach he can’t wear a yarmulke if he’s Jewish, he can’t wear a turban if he’s a Sikh, he can’t pray to Mecca if he’s a Muslim, he can’t wear a cross necklace if he’s a Christian.” Still, the District insists, “Any further violations will be grounds for discipline, up to and including discharge from District employment.”
Stop praying or start walking. That’s the message from the “tolerant” Left. There’s just one problem: the school’s decision isn’t rooted in the law. Teachers, coaches, administrators — or public employees of any kind — don’t lose their religious freedom when they step on school property. Insisting otherwise is a violation of their civil rights.
As Liberty Institute’s attorneys made quite clear in a letter to Bremerton officials: “No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state. Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged in private religious expression upon which the state may not infringe. In fact, any attempt by Bremerton School District to ban or prohibit Coach Kennedy — or any private citizen — praying violates the First Amendment.”
Today, even the Congressional Prayer Caucus got in the game with a letter signed by 46 members to Bremerton, reminding it: “Among the most basic rights that Americans enjoy are the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the freedom of association. The Establishment Clause exists to ensure that the government cannot affirmatively impose or elevate one religion over another. However, it does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that government officials proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square.”
In the meantime, Joe may lose his job — but not his faith. No one knows better than this combat veteran: the battles — on the field and off — belong to the Lord.