Last Updated Oct 29, 2015 1:43 PM EDT
SEATTLE -- The coach of a Washington state high school football team who prayed at games despite orders from the school district to stop was placed on paid administrative leave after a group of self-described Satanists said it planned to attend a Thursday game to protest the practice.
Joe Kennedy, Bremerton High School's assistant football coach, was put on leave because he refused to comply with district directives to avoid overt religious displays on the field, Bremerton School District officials said in a statement late Wednesday.
Kennedy has vocally prayed before and after games, sometimes joined by students, since 2008. But the practice recently came to the district's attention, and it asked him to stop.
He initially agreed, but then, with support from the Texas-based Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization, he resumed the postgame prayers, silently taking a knee for 15 to 20 seconds at midfield after shaking hands with the opposing coaches. His lawyers insist he is not leading students in prayer, just praying himself.
The debate at the school across Puget Sound west of Seattle has focused attention on the role of religion in public schools. Dozens of lawmakers in the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent a letter this week to the superintendent expressing support for the coach.
"While the district appreciates Kennedy's many positive contributions to the BHS football program, and therefore regrets the necessity of this action, 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," the statement said.
The district said Kennedy is still employed and will be paid through the remainder of his contract term unless his status changes. He won't be allowed to participate in any activities related to the football program, although the district said he can attend games as a member of the public.
Kennedy's lawyer, Hiram Sasser, called the leave a hostile employment action.
"It's surprising and shocking," Sasser said.
He said they plan to file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he said is a next step.
The announcement came as a group of robe-wearing, incense-spreading Satanists planned to attend Thursday's game. Senior class president Abe Bartlett said Wednesday that he was one of a few students who invited the Satanic Temple of Seattle, saying it was an effort to get the school district to clarify its policy.
"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," said Bartlett, 17.
"They need to either go black or white," he said. "I don't think this controversial middle ground is what our school needs."
The Satanic Temple, which has 42 members in its Seattle chapter, suggested that by allowing the coach to continue praying, the district has created a forum for religious expression open to all groups. It requested permission to perform an invocation on the field after the game.
"It'll definitely be a theatrical production - robes, incense, we have a gong," chapter head Lilith Starr said. "There are a number of students and teachers at Bremerton High who don't feel like they're being represented on the football field."
The district did not respond to a request for comment regarding the group.
The group doesn't believe in Satan except as "a potent symbol of rebellion against tyranny," it says on its website. It's an atheist group that rejects the notion of supernatural deities and espouses values such as scientific inquiry and compassion, it says.