State schools chief says coach's midfield prayer can be 'exclusionary or even distressing' to players

BREMERTON -- An influential school official for the state weighed in on the issue of a coach leading prayer following a high school sports game, criticizing the teacher's "exclusionary or even distressing" practice.

Last Friday, coach Joe Kennedy of Bremerton High School led a prayer at the 50-yard line following his team's homecoming loss to the Centralia Tigers.

The assistant coach had previously been told he wasn't allowed to pray because of concerns over the constitutional separation of church and state. After originally saying he would follow the rules, he later decided to lead the prayer.

It is not known if Kennedy plans on continuing his prayer for the rest of the season.

Though Kennedy is still employed by the Bremerton School District, the school board is reviewing the events of Friday night in hopes of coming up with a workable agreement, the district said.

On Friday, State Superintendent Randy Dorn released a statement regarding the prayer, saying "it's unfortunate when the actions of one employee affect an entire district." Dorn also commended the district on the "tough decisions" it has to make concerning the prayer.

Dorn released the statement in support of the Bremerton School District, OSPI Communications Specialist Kristen Jaudon said, and any other district that may encounter a similar scenario.

Dorn's full statement:

Recently there have been reports of a Washington state school district employee leading a prayer at a high school football game. It’s unfortunate when the actions of one employee affect an entire district.

Employees from each of our state’s 295 districts must follow the law whatever the source — whether it comes from school district policy, state statute or the U.S. Constitution. Most school districts in Washington take a similar approach when they have to balance when it’s appropriate for staff and students to exercise religious expression in school against the need to ensure that schools don’t advance religion or favor one religion over another.

It's not always easy to apply the law. Or popular. But for me, rules usually come down to common sense. School staff exercising their right to silently pray in private on their own is fine. But leading a prayer isn’t. School officials are role models; leading a prayer might put a student in an awkward position, even if the prayer is voluntary. For students who don’t share the official’s faith, prayers the official’s public expression of faith can seem exclusionary or even distressing.  What’s more, that official could open the district up to a lawsuit.

Each and every district wrestles with these kinds of questions regularly. I commend them on the tough decisions they have to make.

Dorn does not have jurisdiction over human resource decisions at the district level, OSPI Communications Specialist Kristen Jaudon said.

The public had a chance to comment on Kennedy's post-game prayers earlier this month during a school board meeting, the Bremerton Patriot reports. According to the Patriot, many former and current students spoke both for and against the idea of the prayer.

"I'd like to encourage the district to continue the efforts to uphold the law and not allow Coach Kennedy to lead, conduct or participate in prayer after high school football games," Teresa Fox, a graduate of Bremerton High School, reportedly said.