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High School Football Coach Suspended For Refusing To Stop Praying

A Washington assistant football coach was suspended Wednesday after refusing to obey the school's district order to stop holding prayer sessions after games.

Last updated on October 30, 2015, at 1:12 a.m. ET

Posted on October 30, 2015, at 1:04 a.m. ET

Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun / Via AP

Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, on Oct. 16 surrounded by players.

A Seattle-area high school coach has been suspended for refusing to stop praying on the field with his players even though the school district asked him to stop doing so last month.

Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy, 46, said the prayer sessions are not forced and students choose to join on their own accord, KIRO 7 reported. He was placed on leave Wednesday, a day before the school's final football game of the season.

The Bremerton School District said in a statement that Kennedy could not resume coaching until he agreed to stop prayer sessions.

"While the District appreciates Kennedy's many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action," the district's statement said, "Kennedy's conduct poses a genuine risk that the District will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others."

The school district asked Kennedy to stop praying on the field in September, saying that his prayers could be ruled as a violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, according to the statement. The Establishment Clause prohibits government action that favors one religion over another.

Kennedy — who was hired by the school in 2008 and has been praying after games ever since — initially said he would obey the order, CNN reported.

However, Kennedy prayed again at the 50-yard line after the homecoming game on Oct. 16. After the most recent prayer session, the school district said it was forced to suspend the coach until he stopped praying after games.

Meegan M. Reid / AP

Kennedy, in blue, surrounded by Centralia players after they took a knee with him and prayed after their game against Bremerton on Oct. 16.

Kennedy is now represented by the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based religious freedom law group, which has argued that the prayers are legal, according to the Seattle Times.

The Liberty Institute said it would sue the district on Kennedy's behalf, arguing the suspension was a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating based on religion as well as other protected categories, CNN reported.

The district said in its statement that it has offered Kennedy a private location to use as a prayer box after games, like in the stadium press box. Kennedy declined, according to the district's statement.

During the homecoming prayer session, Kennedy was met with an outpouring of support as both his own players and those from the opposing team surrounded him, KIRO 7 reported.

Meegan M. Reid / AP

Kennedy wipes his tears as he walks off the field after kneeling in prayer with players after a game in Bremerton.

Kennedy was allowed to attend Thursday's final game as a member of the public, and two news outlets tweeted pictures of him at the game:

Coach Joe Kennedy has arrived at the Bremerton HS stadium, will watch the game from the stands.

Coach Joe Kennedy supporting his players from the Bremerton stands tonight. #Q13Fox

A group of self-described Satanists from Seattle who opposed the prayers said they would also attend the game, the AP reported.

Elaine Thompson / AP

Lilith Starr, chapter head of The Satanic Temple of Seattle, said that her group of self-described Satanists will attend the school's football game Thursday to protest praying at the 50-yard line after games.

Starr said about 10 members dressed in robes are planning to go to the game.

Bremerton Police Chief Steve Strachan told the AP there would be extra officers attending the game as a precaution, but he expects no problems.

For Kennedy's part, he has thanked his supporters — his Facebook page is filled with messages encouragement — and on Monday posted pictures saying, "this is why I give thanks."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.