SEATTLE (Reuters) - Carrying out what he called a personal act of faith, high-school football coach Joe Kennedy walked out to the 50-yard-line after a recent game, knelt down and prayed.
For that post-game ritual, the Bremerton, Washington, district superintendent suspended Kennedy with pay in late October and is debating whether to renew his contract, which ends in December.
The district’s crackdown marks the latest high-profile injunction against prayer at football games in the United States, where Christian observances continue unabated in many public school sports arenas, despite court rulings limiting school-sponsored religious ceremonies.
Kennedy has performed variations on his ritual regularly over the last eight years as coach at the high school in Bremerton, a city of 40,000 about an hour’s ferry ride from Seattle.
“It’s my constitutional right to do this,” he told Reuters, invoking the freedom of speech afforded by the First Amendment. “It’s part of me, it’s who I am. I am not going to hide my faith.”
Neither the district nor Washington’s high-school sports governing board would comment on the frequency of prayer by coaches at games in the state.
But activists say it is common in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
“We get more than one thousand complaints every year about prayer and other religious violations in public schools, and a substantial number of them are related to prayer associated with sports and coach-led prayer,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of advocacy group the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The foundation’s 2015 report found that numerous public universities, including the University of Washington, have chaplains paid for with taxpayer funds as part of their football programs.
In two other recent cases, a Georgia high school held a mass on-field baptism for players in September and Oklahoma State University players and coaches knelt in a pre-game prayer a few hours after a drunk driver killed four people at a homecoming parade on October 24.
In the wake of these controversies, the debate over religious liberty and football has raged across the country, from social media and newspaper columns to Washington DC. Conservative lawmakers have invoked them to warn of dangers to religious freedom.
“They’re frightened when people exercise their faith ... and so they try to quash it, quiet it,” U.S. Senator James Lankford, of Oklahoma, told lawmakers after the Bremerton incident.
The debate around religious expression comes at a time when Americans are becoming less pious, with just 39 percent of young people likely to pray daily, a recent Pew poll found.
Kennedy initially complied with the district’s mid-September request to stop on-the-job prayer, but on Oct. 16, with the advice of lawyers from the Liberty Institute, a religious advocacy group, he walked out to the 50-yard-line and prayed as players encircled him in support.
He argues that his suspension is unwarranted because he was praying in a way intended to be solitary - like a teacher whispering grace over her meal in the school’s cafeteria.
The district said in a community memo that the law requires its employees to neither endorse nor discourage student-led prayer, and that a coach praying might impose “a degree of coercion” over students.
Kennedy’s lawyers say they intend to file a federal employment discrimination claim within six months.
The Supreme Court has barred school-sponsored, student-led prayer at public school games, while lower courts have granted school districts authority to limit an employee’s on-the-job religious activity.
“A First Amendment claim has to be that he has a free speech or a free exercise of religion right to do this, and that right is sufficiently strong to overcome what could ordinarily be the employer’s control over its employees,” said University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock.
“I think that claim is pretty weak.”
While the school district studies its options, some students and members of the public are testing for themselves the limits of religious expression.
At an Oct. 29 Bremerton High game, about a dozen members from the Satanic Temple of Seattle, a group of atheist activists, protested outside the stadium, invited by a number of teachers and students, including the class president.
Other Bremerton students swarmed the robed non-believers, holding up crosses, chanting “Jesus” and throwing liquid that one student said was holy water.
“We don’t think anybody should be praying on the field at a school event,” said Lilith Starr, a Temple member. “But if you are going to have an open religious forum, you must have equality for all religions.”
Editing by Patrick Enright and Mary Milliken