Bremerton Debates: Coach Joe and the First Amendment

The five-member Bremerton School Board of Directors isn’t used to seeing a full room of concerned citizens at their regular meetings.

While the regular calendar included no items directly concerning District policies on religious expression or disciplinary action of Coach Joe Kennedy, that didn’t stop dozens of Bremerton residents from showing up to fill the one-hour allotment of time reserved for public testimony.

School Board rules dictate that the names of individual staff or students may not be named during public testimony, shifting the conversation to a more philosophical level and leaving citizens to spar on the intent and interpretation of the First Amendment, among other things.

By rough the estimates of the applause following individual testimony, probably 7 out of 10 people in attendance supported the cause of Coach Joe Kennedy.  But several of the speakers encouraged the school district to continue in their course of action against Coach Kennedy. “He (Kennedy) deserves to be fired and banned from any further work in the district,” said Bremerton resident Terence Connors.

Other residents came to Coach Kennedy’s defense.  “When people stand up and exercise their faith … and others join them voluntarily, we should support them,” Bremerton resident David Hatzenbuehler said. “To suppress that is really standing in violation of the very principles our country was founded on.”

You can read some of the night’s other comments here.

While most of the speakers remained civil and reserved in their remarks on both sides of the debate, several speakers who spoke in opposition to Coach Joe showed high levels of emotion, raising their voices, crying, and, in the case of one parent, angrily slamming a thick stack of papers down on the desk of the school board directors before storming out of the hearing room.

The most striking part of the evening really had little to do with one person’s actions or demeanor.  Scattered throughout the opposition’s testimony was the prevailing notion that Coach Joe Kennedy is not just in the wrong, but that he has somehow broken the law and should face punishment — that somehow his prayer has created an unsafe environment for children.

It’s clear now that America now has very different opinions of what the freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of expression actually mean.

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