Will Bremerton coach’s complaint lead into a courtroom battle?

Dec 15, 2015, 5:27 PM | Updated: Dec 16, 2015, 5:49 am
prayer...
Former Bremerton coach Joe Kennedy was fired for leading post-game prayers. Now a state lawmaker is trying to legalize prayer on school ground after the day is over. (AP)
(AP)

Bremerton football coach Joe Kennedy is back. This time, he has raised up from his knee, and walked into the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to file a complaint, arguing that his freedom to express his religion has been violated.

It’s the next step in what has become an ongoing battle between a praying football coach and a school district straddling the line between church and state.

Kennedy claimed a range of media headlines when he refused to stop praying with football players after games in his position as a Bremerton High School football coach. The school district asked him to refrain from doing so as it violates the constitution. The district has since opted not to renew its contract with the coach.

A complaint submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is generally a precursor for an actual lawsuit, but Kennedy’s attorney Mike Berry, with Liberty Institute, told KIRO Radio’s Jason Rantz that they’ll wait on the EEOC’s decision, and the school district’s response, before moving forward with any litigation.

Related: Bremerton coach files religious discrimination against district over 50-yard-line prayers

“The EEOC certainly is going to have the opportunity to investigate and we hope that they will take this case seriously, as they should take with any case with religious discrimination,” Berry said. “And we’re hopeful that there will be a positive outcome without having to go any further.”

“In fact, I’ve offered to meet with Bremerton School District officials on multiple occasions in the hopes that we could resolve it without even having to do an EEOC complaint,” he said. “Unfortunately, they never agreed to meet with me, so really they’re the ones that have forced us into this position because we were never able to meet with them. We weren’t able to sit down like adults, face-to-face, and try to resolve this and so this is now where we are.”

Berry said he hopes EEOC will come to its conclusion in a relatively efficient time.

“Obviously, the most important thing that we want to get out of this is for Coach Kennedy to be reinstated as a football coach so he can get back to the business of mentoring these young men,” he said.

Berry told Rantz that much of the EEOC’s decision will be contingent on deciding whether Kennedy being a private citizen versus a school representative.

“Clearly, we’re asking for him to be able to do this in his private capacity,” Berry said. “…If you were to characterize what he does, it’s really a moment of silence. Nobody can hear him and he’s choosing to do it in a manner and a time when the students aren’t around.”

But Rantz noted that just because the game is over, doesn’t mean Kennedy ceases being a coach.

“You still have students there, you still have parents in the stands,” Rantz said. “The coach can say to a kid, ‘you did a really good job, sport.’ You’re still acting as a coach. So where do you draw the line as far as school representative or school employee verses I no longer represent anyone but myself?”

Berry told Rantz that Kennedy is asking the school for a religious accommodation.

“We encounter this all the time in public life,” he said. “In fact, there were two cases recently taken up by the EEOC dealing with these accommodations.”

One, he said, involves a Muslim Abercrombie & Fitch employee who was not allowed to wear a head covering while at work. While there may be no Biblical basis in Christianity that suggests prayer on a 50-yard-line is a part of the religion, Berry says that’s not the point.

“That’s not for the school district to decide,” he said. “That would be entirely inappropriate for a school district to begin dictating to people of faith what is or is not a significant part of their religious beliefs.”

Coach said, when he was hired, he made an agreement with God that he would give Him the glory after every game. He believes it’s his right and an American and Christian to pray where he pleases.

“As an American, people should not have to hide their faith just because of where they work and what somebody else might or might not think,” he said. “That’s not what I thought America was about.”

Rantz asked whether this case would be different if Kennedy were a different religion. Berry said he hopes not, but that the EEOC complaint includes the Liberty Institutes own investigation that found other employees of the football team of other faiths were engaging in religious expression without being treated the way Kennedy has been.

“I think that’s pretty telling,” he said. “I would add that our position at Liberty Institute, however, is that religious freedom means religious freedom for all Americans of all faiths. Those other employees and coaches are certainly entitled…and it’s just a shame that the school district has decided to pick on Coach Kennedy as their target.”

MyNorthwest’s Richard D. Oxley contributed to this article.

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Will Bremerton coach’s complaint lead into a courtroom battle?