Washington coach suspended for praying files complaint

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SEATTLE (AP) — A Washington state high school assistant football coach who was suspended for praying at midfield after games filed a discrimination complaint against the district Tuesday, claiming among other things that the district did not punish the team's offensive coordinator for similarly performing postgame Buddhist chants, his lawyers said.

The Liberty Institute, a Texas-based, nonprofit law firm that's representing coach Joe Kennedy, said he filed the complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It alleges the Bremerton School District discriminated against him when it suspended him Oct. 28.

"BSD violated my rights to free exercise of religion and free speech by prohibiting my private religious expression and taking adverse employment action against me on the basis of my religion, notwithstanding my request for a reasonable accommodation that would allow me to practice my sincerely held religious beliefs," Kennedy wrote. "Moreover, BSD does not uniformly or consistently enforce its discriminatory policy. I have observed other BSD employees engage in visible religious expression without adverse consequences."

He referenced one employee who "regularly engages in a Buddhist chant near the 50-yard line at the conclusion of BHS football games." A school district spokeswoman declined to answer questions about the allegation, saying the district had not been officially notified of Kennedy's complaint.

The Liberty Institute released a version of Kennedy's complaint that redacted the employee's name, but it identified him as the varsity team's offensive coordinator.

The offensive coordinator, Dave Boynton, declined an interview request from the Associated Press on Tuesday.

"With all due respect, this is something that's going to be resolved down the road, and I have not been deposed by either side yet," he said.

Kennedy had prayed before and after games, sometimes joined by students, since 2008. The district asked him to stop when the practice came to its attention this year, but he persisted by silently taking a knee and praying. The district argued that students could feel coerced to participate in religious activity when they see their coaches lead or endorse it, and that Kennedy and other staff members were free to engage in religious activity that did not interfere with public duties and was apart from students or non-demonstrative.

In a letter to the superintendent and school board, Kennedy's lawyers disputed the district's interpretation of federal court rulings on religious activity by public school employees.

"Coach Kennedy engages in private religious expression during non-instructional hours, after his official duties as a coach have ceased," attorney Hiram Sasser wrote. "He neither requests, encourages, nor discourages students from participating in, or coming to where he prays. ... Under these circumstances, there is no constitutional prohibition against Coach Kennedy's private religious expression."

The EEOC is expected to review the complaint and decide whether to conduct an investigation.

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