It has all the makings of a great story: A praying football coach, God, angry school officials and a group of Satanists.
This latest prayers-on-school-property drama takes place across Puget Sound from Seattle in Bremerton, a city of about 40,000 known for its shipyard and U.S naval base. Since 2008, the assistant varsity football coach at the local high school has prayed at the 50 yard line after each game. In time, this became a tradition.
Until the school district decided his actions could lead to a lawsuit. Here’s how the Seattle Times described it:
In a four-page statement Wednesday that appeared to have been written by lawyers, the Bremerton School District said it was placing an assistant football coach on paid administrative leave over a prayer controversy that’s gone nationwide.
Joe Kennedy, the assistant coach, had refused to comply with district orders to stop praying on the field after games. The district said it was bound by “lawful and constitutionally-required directives” about public religious displays.
The district said that Kennedy would remain employed by the district for the term of his contract as the junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach. But Kennedy would not be allowed to participate “in any capacity” in the football program unless he agreed to comply with district directives.
When contacted for comment, Kennedy had Mike Berry, senior counsel at the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, answer on his behalf. The group says its mission is “defending and preserving religious liberty in America.”… The case has drawn attention from around the country. On Tuesday, 47 members of Congress sent a letter of support for the coach to the district.
Later on when I called up the story again, the Times had taken out the "that have appeared to have been written by lawyers" clause.
Wonder why? Then a Seattle group called the Satanic Temple announced that if Kennedy got to pray on the field after the game, its members would show up to stage a prayer of its own. After reading several stories, it was still a bit foggy as to what got a handful of students to invite the Satanists. Supposedly they wanted to force the school district’s hand in putting a lid on Kennedy.
Hey journalists: If so, why now? The coach has been doing these prayers for seven years.
I searched for earlier Times stories on this topic to answer this question. Not finding any, I had to turn to a Fox News commentary to learn that someone had complained back in September about Kennedy’s prayers and in response and the school district had responded by gagging the coach. According to the TV station:
He was directed to cease and desist those prayers on Sept. 17th. He was also ordered to avoid kneeling, bowing his head or doing anything that could remotely be seen as religious.
“You violated those directives by engaging in overt, public and demonstrative religious conduct while still on duty as an assistant coach,” Leavell wrote.
(Superintendent Aaron) Leavell had offered to let the coach engage in “private prayer” following the football games — provided no child could see the coach petitioning the Almighty.
The district’s accommodation for the coach’s “hush-hush, clandestine” prayers would be allowed“so long as your brief, private religious exercise would not interfere with your performance of your continuing duties as an assistant coach.”
All sorts of media have jumped on this story. The New York-based sports site deadspin.com reported that the head of the Seattle Satanic group had gotten the ball rolling by deciding to use Kennedy's situation as a way to get some free PR. She put out a press release offering to lead post-game invocations herself and inviting students and staff to participate.
A Seattle Times columnist wrote here why the school district is not being unreasonable and why the coach’s actions place his employer in legal jeopardy.
Then the Times' new sports columnist, a self-described atheist, penned this column admiring Kennedy’s actions. Thus, the opinion pages are filling in some of the blanks on this story.
Another Times story explained several church-state conflicts in Washington over the past decade, including a rabbi’s fight to get a menorah placed among Christmas decorations at the SeaTac airport. And yet another story described the support Kennedy has gotten from members of Congress.
The Bremerton Patriot has also weighed in with a slew of pieces, including one on how the team opposing the Bremerton Knights during an Oct. 16 game chose to pray with Coach Kennedy as a show of solidarity. The Patriot also has a link to Liberty Institute’s site and various legal briefs that have been filed to date.
If you're wondering what exactly the coach does that's creating hysterics within school district offices, the Times ran a story in the middle of October that answers that question:
BREMERTON -- Surrounded by members of his team, players from the rival Centralia High School and scores of supporters from Kitsap County and beyond, Bremerton High assistant coach Joe Kennedy knelt on the 50-yard line after Friday night’s game and prayed.
It was some version of the basic prayer he’s said for years, he said afterward.
“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.”
He said he never intended to become part of the controversy surrounding his postgame prayers, but had to stand up for his right to practice his faith when challenged by the school district.
The Times ran plenty of quotes from both sides of the story, including this description of why the district believes activities by a coach after a game are deemed school-connected:
The letter (from school district attorneys) also took issue with the idea that Kennedy is off-duty immediately after the game ends. It said the prayers occur “when students are still on the football field, in uniform, under the stadium lights, with the audience still in attendance, and while Mr. Kennedy is still in his District-issued and District-logoed attire. Critically, at that time, Mr. Kennedy remains on duty. …”
Both the Times and the Patriot, as well as numerous TV stations attending the Oct. 29 game, ran print accounts of the crowd’s reaction to the Satanists plus video. The Patriot also noted the massive police presence at the game. Although several students thanked the Seattle group for coming, a far larger number lined the fence, waved crosses and shouted the name of Jesus at the visitors. The Satanists, dressed in theatrical black costumes and masks, decided to leave the premises shortly after they arrived.
The one gap in the coverage has been any explanation of what this Satanic Temple group is all about. Alas, the Times has not had a religion-beat reporter for some time, so there’s no in-house expert on whether members of this sect are newbies on the block or an established group. Seattle’s KING 5 TV did a piece on the group’s founding in 2014, that shows the flimsy theological -- or anti-theological -- grounds on which this group is based. Members don't even believe in a deity, which puts their offer to pray at a Bremerton football game in a whole different light. How does one pray if there is no one to pray to?
As you may see by the comments attached to several of these pieces, there’s a lot of people following what will happen to the coach and arguing about whether his prayers are protected speech or not. I'd rate the coverage above average on the whole, although I'd like to see something on what church Joe Kennedy attends and how he came by his beliefs. Before the lawyers completely take over this narrative, let's hear a bit more about the man himself.
IMAGE: Kennedy photo courtesy of the Liberty Institute