Monday, September 21, 2015

Prayer Under Fire in Bremerton, WA

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As firefighters begin to get a handle on the wildfires that have raged across Washington State this summer, a fire of another kind ignited last week in Bremerton---on the football field.

First, the Bremerton school district announced an "investigation" by an outside attorney into the allegation that Coach Joe Kennedy had prayed on the field.

Citizens and parents were stunned. One woman told KING 5, "We've watched coach Joe pray after every game for years."

Many couldn't understand why it suddenly became an issue last week.

Is a praying coach so incendiary he should be investigated? Or fired?

Who initiated the investigation?

My wife and I took off some time last week. It's great to be back.

Much happened last week in our culture---at home and in our nation.

One event in Bremerton captured national attention. All of us can take something from it.

One of the several battleships docked in the harbor was not attacked, but apparently, in the minds of some, a praying coach is a concern of national proportion.

King 5 TV first reported, "The Bremerton High School District is investigating a football coach for praying after high school and JV football games."

"District policy," said King 5, "states 'school staff shall neither encourage nor discourage' students from praying."

Coach Joe Kennedy says he always prays after games---always has---some times alone, sometimes someone would join him. He says of the students, "They just all showed up one day and the next thing I know, the other team was showing up with us."

By all reports so far, no one has accused him of "encouraging" students to join him.

Joe says, "I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, and it's been about protecting the freedom of other people. It's about the freedom, and people can believe whatever they want," he says.

He explains, "I'm just exercising my right. The game is over, and I just thank God for everyone of these young men that are out here."

Coach Kennedy is head coach of the JV team and assistant coach for varsity.

Following last Monday night's JV game, Joe did what he has done for years. After the game he bowed his head in prayer at the 50 yard line. Others joined him.

His prayer was 13 seconds long: "Lord, I just want to lift up all these warriors that came out here to play today. I don't care what their beliefs are. We do believe in this sport. We believe in football, we believe in a team and competition. Its all about the game. In your name. Amen."

Is this "establishing a religion" or creating a theocracy, or tearing down Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" intended to protect the church from government intrusion?

Or is it yet another attempt to strip God from the culture?

If so, by whom?

There is one kid on the football team who claims to be an atheist, but so far he has not been linked to the school district's opposition to Kennedy's praying. In fact he has expressed respect for Kennedy.

The Bremerton--Port Orchard community is generally pretty tight knit. While there is the element of the enormous Navy presence, the communities have many small town qualities.

In fact I have close relatives from both sides of my family who live there.

The sense of community in the area was reflected in comments made to King 5 by one of the fans at last Monday's game.

Bill Baily, who was actually rooting for the other team, said, "It's freedom of religion, not freedom from religion"---"if people don't like the coach saying a prayer, they don't have to participate."

The community generally took offense to the "investigation" with a support rally planned for Coach Kennedy before this Friday night's game.

But on Thursday, King 5 reported, "A Bremerton football coach who received national attention for praying after games will be allowed to stay with the team."

"However"...they reported, "coach Kennedy can provide motivational talk, but won't be allowed to talk with students about anything religious in nature---which includes prayer."

Also on Thursday, just prior to last Friday night's game, Dr. Aaron Leavell, Superintendent of Bremerton School District issued a letter to "Bremerton School District families, staff and community."

No one, as of this morning, is accusing Coach Kennedy of soliciting or proselytizing any of the students.

He simply offered a personal prayer, after the game, and some chose to join him.

He is now forbidden to offer a personal prayer on a football field after a football game. A prayer of thanks for all the young men who participated in a sport.

The school district says they fear they are "open" for a liability law suit, or the loss of federal funding.

So what happened Friday night?

My friend Drew Mikkelsen with King 5 reported the stadium was packed beyond the normal crowd. Many had come to support Coach Kennedy---many had also come to see what he would do.

Mikkelsen says, "All eyes were on Kennedy when the team took the field."

He says, "In the end, Kennedy chose to adhere to the district policy. He addressed his players and the crowd after the game, but didn't pray. Many students responded to his passionate speech---which didn't mention God---by saying 'Amen'."

Kennedy told the crowd and the media, "I don't even know if there's words for that," speaking of the players and public support for him and his faith.

"These guys are so incredible. I love everyone of them," he said.

He said, "My personal faith is my personal faith, and everybody on the team knows where I stand."

He said he is not trying to draw personal attention to himself.

But that wasn't the end of the matter.

Drew reports this for King 5: "Nearly an hour after the game, Kennedy told King 5 he waited until the lights were out and he was the only person left in the stadium. Then he walked to the 50 yard line, alone, and bowed his head in prayer."

This will not be the last chapter of this story.

Sometimes we are pressed to stand for God in the glaring lights of public opposition.

Sometimes we are called to stand for God in the darkness of privacy.

We are always called to stand. And Daniel of the Old Testament would tell us we are always called to pray.

Be Inspired. Be Informed. Be Blessed.