A Washington state high school football coach placed on paid administrative leave for saying postgame prayers with his players attended his former team's game Thursday night and prayed with spectators.
Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy spoke to the media at halftime of the game and called watching from the bleachers, "one of the hardest things I’ve done."
"I’m not used to being on this side," Kennedy said. "I’m used to being beside [the players], listening to them." Kennedy added that it hurt his heart that the controversy had reached the point where "his guys are in the locker room and I've got to be out here."
Bremerton School District officials put Kennedy on leave late Wednesday because they did not want to be seen as endorsing religion. They claimed that they had warned Kennedy several times that he could not pray with players on the field after games.
"While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the [Bremerton] 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," read a statement posted on the district's website.
Former players described the prayers as part of their postgame routine.
"It was never like we were forced to pray with him," former player Skyler Mullins told Q13Fox. He never said, 'Let’s go pray' or anything like that. We all just took it upon ourselves."
Kennedy has prayed before and after games since 2008, but was only asked to stop recently after the practice came to the district's attention.
Bremerton's game against Sequim was also attended by members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle, clad in black robes. The group, which had cheered the decision to put Kennedy on leave, said they went to support teachers and students who invited them. The group had also asked to perform an on-field invocation.
Bremerton High School's senior class president, Abe Bartlett, said he was among those who invited the Satanists.
"The main reason I did it is to portray to the school district that I think we should either have a policy that we're not going to have any religious affiliation or public religious practices, or they should say people are going to be allowed to practice their religion publicly whatever their beliefs," the 17-year-old told the Associated Press Wednesday. "They need to either go black or white. I don't think this controversial middle ground is what our school needs."
There were a few tense moments as some students yelled for the Satanists to leave and threw liquid at them, but there were no reports of arrests.
Q13Fox reported that after Bremerton's 27-20 win, 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. The group shouted "Amen" when they finished.
"I’m willing to take this as far as it goes to defend the rights of the Constitution,to the end," Kennedy said. "If you believe in something, you stand up."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.