Coach chooses not to lead team in prayer, after being warned by school district

BREMERTON, Wash.  -- A Bremerton High School coach found himself in the middle of a controversy, when he learned that the post-game prayer he always says with his team violates federal law. Many say he should continue the tradition anyway.

There’s a lot of noise at a high school football game. There are the fans, the bands and, of course, the action on the field. But Bremerton High School is finding itself in the national spotlight for one of the quieter moments of the night, the prayer after the game.

Joe Kennedy says he stayed on the field to say a prayer, after coaching his first game at Bremerton years ago.

“It was something that was personal, my faith. A couple kids saw me on the 50-yard line.”

They asked to join in. Soon the whole team was taking part, and inviting their opponents to participate, too.

“It’s really about what the sportsmanship is about, to be able to fight and be done and come on back and be all right to move on,” he says.

But it turns out there are constitutional concerns about prayer in school. After consulting with an attorney, the superintendent of the district released a letter outlining the rules for staff. It reads, in part: “talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer. They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member.”

Many people showed up at Bremerton's home opener Friday night against Olympia High School to show their support for Coach Joe.

“I wanted to let him know that although he might persecuted, he’s not going to be persecuted alone,” says Larry Witzig. “He’s got us, and of course, he’s got Jesus Christ.”

“If you think about it,” adds state Rep. Jesse Young, R-Gig Harbor, “football and prayer are kind of woven into the fabric of this country.”

Coach Joe says he always preaches team before self. So after learning about the law, the team made the decision about what to do after the game Friday night.

“We’re going to be out there on the 50, and practice what the Knights have always practiced with the rivals across the field here.”

The coach joined the players and praised the team’s efforts, but did not specifically praise God.

“This is about the game, this about the students and developing our youth,” he said as members of both teams kneeled.

He then walked off the field, as a group of fans started a prayer of their own.

In their written statement, district officials acknowledged that the coaching staff’s actions were well-intentioned. But they said they had to abide by federal law, to protect against possible litigation.