- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Washington state football coach who likes to offer a postgame prayer on the 50-yard line has been officially sent to the lockers, and a Satan-worshipping group has promised to suit up to offer its own postgame incantations.

The Bremerton School District placed Joe Kennedy, assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, on paid administrative leave this week after he refused to stop taking a knee for 20 seconds on the field after shaking hands with the opposing coaches.

Mr. Kennedy, a former Marine who served in Iraq, said he has prayed after games since 2008 after he saw “Facing the Giants,” a movie about a Christian football coach who used faith to conquer fear.

Players, fans and other coaches have sometimes joined Mr. Kennedy on the field — especially on Oct. 16, when he defied the school district and knelt down after a losing game.

“Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers,” Mr. Kennedy prayed, according to The Seattle Times.

Religious freedom groups and the Congressional Prayer Caucus have offered support for Mr. Kennedy, and the Liberty Institute is planning to take legal action on his behalf.

The school district, however, said it had to put Mr. Kennedy on leave because of “the genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others.”

Meanwhile, members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle were expected to appear at Thursday night’s football game in an attempt to hold their own postgame ceremony with incense, a gong and a proclamation.

The Satanists were invited to protest Mr. Kennedy’s prayers by Abe Bartlett, president of the senior class at Bremerton High School, and a few other students, according to The Associated Press.

The school district needs to “either go black or white,” Abe told AP. It should either have a policy that stops any public religious practices or permits people to practice their religion publicly, “whatever their beliefs,” he said.

Attorney Hiram Sasser said Thursday that the Liberty Institute is preparing a discrimination case with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Mr. Kennedy. Once the case has been submitted, a federal lawsuit can be filed against the school district, he said.

Several clashes over religion in public schools have happened in recent weeks thanks to civil rights and atheist groups that monitor such issues. For instance:

A Louisiana high school principal, responding to a student suggestion of having “prayer boxes” in school, used the phrase “May God Bless You All” on a message posted on a school website.

This caught the eye of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Louisiana, which asked the Bossier Parish School Board and Jason Rowland, the principal, to strip all references to prayer from the school website and cease religious indoctrination. The school board decided this month that no corrective action was needed.

A Kentucky high school student was told he could not post certain fliers about a pro-life club meeting, including one with a picture of Blessed Mother Teresa and her quote, “It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so you can live as you wish.”

Matthew Turner, principal of Larry A. Ryle High School in Union, Kentucky, said Patrick Edwards’ fliers were “too controversial” and discriminatory. Advocates with Students for Life of America have protested the censoring of the fliers, and Alliance Defending Freedom has filed a demand letter with the school on behalf of Patrick and his pro-life club.

In Elkhart, Indiana, a school district has been taken to federal court to stop it from hosting a “Christmas Spectacular” performance that features a live Nativity scene.

The lawsuit, filed by an anonymous father and son and the Freedom From Religion Foundation with the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, says it is illegal and coercive for Concord Community Schools to organize, rehearse or present “the story of the birth of Jesus” during the holiday season. The school, which has hosted its program for decades, issued a statement this month saying it will defend itself against the lawsuit but did not have further comment.

In Washington, Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell said in a statement that the school is “doing what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us.” This includes not permitting staff to use “religious expression, including prayer, in talks with students while on duty for the District,” he said.

An attorney for the school told The Seattle Times that Mr. Kennedy was improperly inviting other coaches to join him and was not off duty once the game ended.

School officials also have promised that the football field “is not a public forum when it is in use for a District-sponsored athletic event” and “no group will be approved to use it for their own purposes while these events are occurring.”

In a Tuesday letter to Bremerton school officials, the Congressional Prayer Caucus, led by Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, and Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, said the U.S. Constitution does not require that government officials “proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square.”

“Members of Congress have a longstanding tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer — some Members have even offered the opening prayer themselves — and Coach Kennedy should have the same freedom to pray after his team’s games,” Mr. Forbes said in a statement.

Lilith Starr, Seattle chapter head of the Satanic Temple, said in a letter to school officials that the temple would withdraw its request to perform “the Satanic invocation” at Thursday’s game “if you prevent coach Kennedy from praying or discipline or discharge him appropriately.”

Otherwise, the Satanic Temple wants to use that “same open forum” of the high school football field to offer its invocation and invite students and staff members “to embrace and practice Satanism,” it said.

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