An assistant football coach in Bremerton, Washington, has garnered both supporters and opponents due to his postgame ritual of kneeling and praying in the middle of the field.
Joe Kennedy, assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, was suspended with pay for performing the prayer ritual after a game in late October, according to Reuters and The Associated Press. The district said Kennedy was being suspended for his overt religious displays but was still allowed to attend games.
AP reports that in blunt language, the district noted that unless Kennedy "affirms his intention to comply with the District’s directives, he will not participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities."
In an interview with Reuters, Kennedy said praying is a constitutional right and invoked the First Amendment. "It's part of me, it's who I am. I am not going to hide my faith."
Several other recent controversies have also ignited the debate about football and religious freedom, notes Reuters. One case was a mass-baptism of a football team at a Georgia High School, while another took place in October at Oklahoma State University when players knelt in a prayer before a game.
Kennedy's prayer ritual has fed into the debate and has drawn both supporters and detractors.
"They're frightened when people exercise their faith ... and so they try to quash it, quiet it," said Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma in response to the controversy in Washington, reports Reuters.
Kenny argues that his suspension from coaching is unwarranted because his prayer was intended to be a private one, and his lawyers say they plan to file a federal discrimination lawsuit within the next six months.
Annie Laurie Gaylor of the Freedom From Religion Foundation said "we get more than 1,000 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."
Q13 Fox reported on Nov. 10 that Bremerton High School's head coach, Nate Gillam, has resigned.