Players getting together after a sporting event for a quick prayer used to be a familiar, almost ubiquitous sight.

So Bremerton (Wash.) High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, 46, didn’t see the harm in hosting an informal—and completely voluntary—moment of prayer on the gridiron after his team’s games. But when people complained, the school district suspended Kennedy for his “overt religious displays” after he took a knee at midfield—by himself—following a game last autumn.

Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine, has picked up a lot of support across the nation, including in Washington D.C., where U.S. Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.) gave a fiery speech in his support on the floor of Congress last October.

Citizen caught up with Kennedy and Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Michael Berry to discuss the relationship between faith and football in secular America.

CITIZEN: Did you ever expect that prayer would get you here?

JOE KENNEDY: I never thought my private prayer on the 50-yard line would spread throughout our team and even more amazing, it spread throughout our entire football league. Teams from every opposing team would join us on the 50. I certainly did not think that a prayer I have been doing for the past eight years would end up as a “case.” I thought we lived in America and Americans had rights that were covered under the First Amendment.

C: What has the reaction from players, students and parents been?

JK: The post-game prayer was entirely accepted by the team, coaches, students and parents. We have open dialogue about everything with everyone. This was 100 percent voluntary and no matter what others’ faith was, they respected their coaches’ faith. When it became an issue, there was a variety of reactions, which ranged from amusement to outrage.

C: What would you say to people who are offended by this ritual?

JK: When people communicate, we usually come to an understanding of the prayer and the rights of Americans under the First Amendment.

C: Do you feel like you’re going to have to be more careful about expressing your faith in public? Do you feel like this is going to be the case for everyone in this country soon?

JK: Absolutely not! I will never back down from expressing my faith or my rights. However, I will now always be aware that some people could be offended by it. I do believe this will be a case for everyone in America unless we—all Americans—actually wake up, get involved and stand up for our rights.

C: Where does the case stand now?

MICHAEL BERRY: Coach Kennedy prayed, silently and alone, at the 50-yard line after a football game in October. In response, the Bremerton School District suspended Coach Kennedy from his job. We are planning to file a charge of discrimination against the school district with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in the near future, charging that they are punishing him for what was basically a moment of silence. They are clearly infringing on his right to free religious expression.

C: What do you think is truly at stake here?

MB: Not only is Coach Kennedy’s job at stake, but religious freedom is at stake. Religious freedom means not having to be ashamed and hide your faith. The coach simply wants to be allowed to pray on his own, without the district treating it like it is something bad that must be hidden. This is a case of government hostility to religion. Everyone in Washington, and across the nation, should be concerned when the government tries to restrict its employees’ religious freedom.

C: Do you think the district acted out of fear of negative public opinion?

MB: It’s unclear why the district is taking this action. What is clear is that the district is breaking the law, and hurting the Bremerton community in the process.

Originally published in the March, 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.

© March 2016 Focus on the Family