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Bremerton coach placed on leave attends game as spectator, prays with fans in stands

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BREMERTON, Wash. -- The Bremerton High School Knights took to the field in a bid to make the playoffs Thursday night. But their coach had to settle for cheering for them from the stands. Coach Joe Kennedy is on paid leave for violating the district’s policy over prayer.

“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” he said at halftime. “I’m not used to being on this side, I’m used to being beside them, listening to them.”

He’s also used to praying with them. Former players said that taking a knee with their coach is something they’ve always done after games.

“It was never like we were forced to pray with him. He never said, 'Let’s go pray' or anything like that. We all just took it upon ourselves,” said Skyler Mullins, who graduated from Bremerton in 2014.

But the Bremerton School District said it warned Kennedy several times that as an employee he could not pray on the field after games. They refused our requests for an interview, saying this is a personnel matter. But they referred us to a statement on their website that reads in part:

“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the bhs football program, 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.”

Many players’ family members say they disagree with the district’s decision.

“I think it stinks,” said Edna Buell, the grandmother of a Bremerton student. “I mean he’s not hurting anybody, he’s not asking anybody to pray with him. Who’s it hurting?”

“All these adults bickering over all this, what are we showing our children? What are we teaching our children?” added Robin Benneham, whose great-nephew plays on the team.

Kennedy said he’s trying to teach his players that they have to stand up for what they believe in.

“I’m willing to take this as far as it goes to defend the rights of the Constitution, to the end.”

Satanic Temple of Seattle members clad in black robes, who cheered the decision to put the coach on leave, also went to the game to support teachers and students who invited them. There were a few tense moments as some students reportedly yelled for them to leave and threw liquid at them.

After Bremerton’s 27-20 victory over Sequim, several players walked to the stands to give Coach Kennedy a hug.  Kennedy then knelt down with a group of fans and said a prayer.