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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bremerton’s ‘praying coach’ to return to the sidelines next football season

By Amanda Zhou Seattle Times

The Washington state high school football coach at the center of a First Amendment case that went before the U.S. Supreme Court last year will return to the sidelines for the upcoming football season.

The Bremerton School District announced that Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach who prayed with his players and other students on the field, will be back in his old coaching role this year. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that Kennedy’s prayer fell under his First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, weighing in on the age-old argument over prayer in public schools.

After the decision, Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said the ruling affirms school employees can engage in individual prayer as long as there’s no expectation others join and the prayer is not part of official duties.

Kennedy started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. But students and players soon joined him, and he began giving talks with religious references.

The district asked him to stop. Kennedy and district officials disagreed about whether he complied with that request, and how to characterize his actions.

Kennedy was put on administrative leave at the end of the 2015 season, and a school official recommended against renewing his contract for the 2016 season. Kennedy did not reapply for his job.

Kennedy, who moved to Florida to care for a family member, had previously said he wanted his old job back, and his attorneys implied after the Supreme Court decision that they expected him to return to coaching.

Kennedy has completed human resources paperwork, and the district is awaiting his fingerprinting and background check results. The school board will approve coach contracts on Aug. 3, and Kennedy will be included in coaching staff communications and begin coaching in mid-August, the district said.

“We are thrilled that Bremerton and Coach Kennedy are back together and we hope they go undefeated,” Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel at First Liberty Institute, the legal organization that represented Kennedy, said in a statement.

The district announced last week it had reached an agreement to settle a claim for Kennedy’s attorney fees for $1,775,000. The agreement must be approved in a board meeting Thursday.