IN-DEPTH: 'I Fought the Good Fight'; High School Football Coach Returns to the Field After Supreme Court Ruling

A high school coach returns to the game on the first of September after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of his First Amendment right to pray on the football field.
IN-DEPTH: 'I Fought the Good Fight'; High School Football Coach Returns to the Field After Supreme Court Ruling
Coach Joe Kennedy, 2022. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)
Matt McGregor

A high school coach returns to the game on the first of September after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of his First Amendment right to pray on the football field.

Joe Kennedy, a twenty-year Marine veteran and assistant coach for the Bremerton High School (BHS) football team in Bremerton, Washington, was suspended in 2015 for his custom of taking a knee and praying midfield after games to offer thanks, whether his team won or lost.

The school district’s lawyers took issue with his ceremony of seven years and warned that if he didn’t stop, he’d be suspended, but Mr. Kennedy wouldn’t be deterred.

“As a Marine veteran who fought in the first Gulf War, it really rubbed me the wrong way because I served 20 years to support and defend the Constitution,” Mr. Kennedy told The Epoch Times. “Now, I’m being told it doesn’t apply to me. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that. If I can’t express my First Amendment rights as an American, imagine what they are doing to everybody else.”

Though it would have been easier to comply, Mr. Kennedy said that’s essentially what’s wrong with society today.

“Nobody wants to take a stand,” he said. “Well, I wasn’t going to just sit back and let them demolish my rights.”

Inspired by the Christian film “Facing the Giants,” Mr. Kennedy started coaching in 2008.

“Just like in the movie, I gave the glory to God after every game, and that’s what I did,” he said. “I would be at the 50-yard line and take a knee to thank God.”

Separation of Church and State Questioned

According to First Liberty Institute (FLI), the religious freedom legal organization that represented Mr. Kennedy, the school district lawyers had concluded that Mr. Kennedy’s prayer violated school policy prohibiting religious activity intermingled with student activities and decided further that such activity “should be non-demonstrative.”

Mr. Kennedy had been offering motivational speeches to the students who gathered for prayer after the game.

“Those speeches sometimes included religious content and a short prayer, but he never coerced, required, or asked any student to pray or told any student that it was important that they participate in any religious activity,” FLI said.

After a complaint from the coach of an opposing team, the school district lawyers were made aware of the post-game gatherings, which led to their request that he discontinue praying with students.

Mr. Kennedy stopped, and at the next game, he ceased public praying altogether.

“On the way home from the game, he felt upset that he had broken the commitment he had made to God at the outset of his coaching career,” FLI said. “So, he turned the car around and returned to the field. Coach Kennedy waited until everyone left both the field and stadium, then walked to the 50-yard line alone and knelt in silent prayer.”

The district lawyers became concerned that the midfield prayer, even without the participation of the students, was risking being perceived as a government endorsement of religion, thus violating the separation of church and state, so they drew a line in the sand.

The LBI requested that the district grant Mr. Kennedy a religious accommodation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits employment discrimination based on, among others, religious beliefs, which was later denied.

At another game, Mr. Kennedy continued his tradition of praying after the game.

“While he was kneeling with his eyes closed, coaches and players from the opposing team, along with members of the public, decided to join him on the field and to kneel beside him,” FLI said. “Coach Kennedy did not ask anyone to join him and did not know that anyone would join him.”

Despite his compliance with school policy regarding public prayer, the district enacted more strict rules prohibiting him from engaging in religious activity within the view of the public, FLI said.

“The only ‘accommodation’ the district offered to Coach Kennedy was to permit him to pray in secret in a ‘private location within the school building, athletic facility[,] or press box,’ FLI said.

'Unwilling to Break His Commitment'

But Mr. Kennedy persisted, FLI said.

“Unwilling to break his commitment to God yet again, when the next game ended and the players began engaging in other post-game traditions, Coach Kennedy knelt alone to offer a brief, silent prayer of thanks at the 50-yard line,” FLI said.

Two days later. Mr. Kennedy was put on paid administrative leave and barred from participating in the football games until he “affirms his intention to comply with the District’s directives.”

“But those directives went against my faith and my constitutional right as an American, and I wasn’t about to give that up,” Mr. Kennedy said.

 Mr. Joe Kennedy coaching at a Bremerton High School game. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)
Mr. Joe Kennedy coaching at a Bremerton High School game. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)

The Legal Battle

FLI filed the lawsuit (pdf) against the school district in federal court in 2016, declaring that the school district’s actions violated his First Amendment rights.

In addition, FLI asked for a preliminary injunction for the district to reinstate him.

District Judge Ronald Leighton denied the motion, a ruling which was backed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Milan Smith.

According to the Associated Press, Judge Leighton compared Mr. Kennedy’s custom to a director who prays centerstage after a play.

“A reasonable onlooker would interpret their speech from that location as an extension of the school-sanctioned speech just before it,” Judge Leighton said.

In 2018, the Supreme Court denied the initial request to hear the case, but Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh questioned the lower court's interpretation of the First Amendment rights within the school system, calling the Ninth Circuit’s ruling “troubling.”

The Supreme Court returned the case to the district court, where it, and later the Ninth Circuit, again sided with the school district, prompting FLI to refile the case with the Supreme Court.

Lemon v. Kurtzman

The Supreme Court overturned Lemon v. Kurtzman (pdf), which had been used as a precedent when arguing in opposition to the freedom of religious expression in government settings.

“What most people don’t know is that the Court’s final decision has much greater ramifications nationwide,” said Mr. Kennedy’s attorney, Kelly Shackelford.

Ms. Shackelford said Lemon v. Kurtzman had been cited “more than seven thousand times” over the last 50 years, which had promoted hostility toward religious expression.

The 1971 case revolved around state statutes in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island that permitted funding to religious schools that would pay for teachers’ salaries, textbooks, and instructional material.

Alton Lemon and other appellants sued Pennsylvania Superintendent of Public Instruction David Kurtzman, challenging the constitutionality of aid to nonpublic, religious schools.

The Supreme Court sided with Lemon and the other appellants.

According to Ms. Shackelford, the case has since been lorded over those who have argued for their right to freely express their religious beliefs.

“Thanks to Coach Kenney, Lemon is now dead,” Ms. Shackelford said. “Six of the Supreme Court justices agreed that it was not only an outdated method of judging religious expression, but now all seven thousand citations over the past fifty years have to be reconsidered. Where crosses were once torn down, they can now go back up. Where Ten Commandments displays were put into storage, they can now come back out. Where prayers were banned through the threat of job termination, workers can now pray again.”

'Average Joe'

Since the legal fight began, Mr. Kennedy has taken motivational speeches from the football field to a larger audience.

His book, “Average Joe,” which will be on the market on October 24, gives an account of his life beginning with his difficult youth up to the Supreme Court win.

“I grew up here and attended Bremerton High School, and the whole time I was here I was constantly in trouble,” he said. “I was kicked out of the house and lived in group homes."

He dropped out of BHS and began looking for a change.

That's when he discovered the Marine Corps., which required that he graduate from high school before enlisting, so he returned.

“I needed to do something different with my life because jail didn’t sound like a good option, so I joined the Marines and I didn’t look back,” he said. “I needed some place where I could learn about discipline and team building, and to become something more than myself. That’s where the love of my country and the Constitution really was founded—by serving and protecting everyone’s Constitutional rights in America.”

Though he never planned on being a coach, he was recruited by the high school athletic director, who spotted him wearing a BHS shirt while running.

Mr. Kennedy had just retired from the Marines and was working at the local naval shipyard with his eyes on the horizon for what was next, he said.

“He told me they were looking for people who can train and lead our young men on the football field,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Mr. Kennedy initially declined, admitting that he didn’t know anything about football, but the director persisted, and Mr. Kennedy agreed to an interview.

Though his knowledge of football was limited, he was hired based on what he could bring to the team, Mr. Kennedy recalled, which was discipline, team building, and leadership.

“They offered me the job on the spot,” he remembered.

'I Fought the Good Fight'

On the Supreme Court win and his reinstatement in March 2023, Mr. Kennedy alluded to 2 Timothy 4:7-8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

“I felt like I had been running this marathon for eight years, and the finish light was finally in sight,” he said. “It took another year for me to get back on the field.”

Now, he’s not only returning to the field, he said, but he’s returning to the field to pray.

“Those were the only two things I asked for—to be a coach and to be able to pray after football games,” he said. “Now I’m a coach again, and the only thing left to do is to pray on the football field after a game, which is what’s going to happen tonight.”

 Coach Joe Kennedy's midfield prayer, 2022. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)
Coach Joe Kennedy's midfield prayer, 2022. (Courtesy of First Liberty Institute)