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‘Wouldn’t Change A Thing’: Coach Fired For On-Field Prayer Reflects On Supreme Court Win, Return To The Sidelines

  • Joe Kennedy is returning to his old coaching job at Bremerton High School after his Supreme Court victory last June, a decision he said is based on “principle.”
  • The district suspended Kennedy’s employment after he declined to stop his brief, private prayers on the 50-yard line before football games.
  • “I’m just trying to walk in faith and see what the next steps are,” Kennedy told the Daily Caller News Foundation during an interview.

After his landmark Supreme Court victory, Joe Kennedy is returning to coach football at the same school that fired him for praying, a decision he told the Daily Caller News Foundation is based on “principle.”

Backed by the nation’s highest court and a November 2022 district court order instructing the school district to reinstate him before March 15, Kennedy walked into the Bremerton School District office and told them, “I’m here for my reinstatement.” Now, after being reinstated earlier this month, he’s slated to start coaching when the 2023 season begins mid-August and is welcome to participate in spring practice and offseason activities “as any other assistant coach,” according to the district website.

“It’s just so crazy to think that this went so far and it became a national thing,” Kennedy said during an interview with the DCNF. “After all this fighting, you finally hear that you did nothing wrong and the Constitution means [what you think it meant].”

When Kennedy started working as an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School (BHS) varsity football team in 2008, he made a commitment to God: He’d take a knee before each game and quietly give thanks in prayer. It’s a commitment that, after seven years without objections from the school district, culminated in him losing his job.

The administration first took note of Kennedy’s practice in 2015 after another high school’s employee commented on it positively to the BHS principle, according to First Liberty. Administrators became concerned Kennedy’s conduct may imply the school’s endorsement of religion, initially instructing him not to intentionally involve students. Kennedy agreed — he never asked or required a student to join him.

But administrators later shifted the goal, requiring that he pray entirely out of students’ sight. Kennedy declined to stop his brief, private prayers on the field. He sued in 2016 after the district fired him, and, after years of litigation, wound up in the Supreme Court.

Kennedy’s case was a significant victory for religious liberty, clarifying that public school employees have the right to publicly pray and discarding the 50-year old “Lemon Test” courts have used to determine when government actions violate the Establishment Clause.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” the court ruled in June 2022.

Kennedy says he’s going back because “that’s what the fight was for.”

“I didn’t get to end on my terms,” he said. “I was terminated from a job that I loved. It was my calling. It’s like I have some unfinished business to do out there, even if I’m out there for just one more game or one more season.”

Still, Kennedy says he had to take all the initiative to get his old job back — the district never reached out. “They’ve been cordial,” he said. “It’s just sad that I had to, that I’m still having to, [take] all these steps to get information and to feel like I’m part of the team.”

“I don’t hold any grudges against anybody,” he said. “This was something for the courts to figure out and they did.”

During a March 16 meeting, the Bremerton School District Board of Directors agreed to a $1,775,000 settlement to cover Kennedy’s attorneys fees. The school district pointed to its website in response to the DCNF’s request for comment.

Looking back, Kennedy says he “wouldn’t change a thing,” though he does wish the lawyers hadn’t been so bent on removing “all religion from the public square.” The experience deepened his faith in God, he said.

“To go through all of this, I had nowhere else to turn except to Him and the support of everybody else around me with their prayers,” he said. “That’s what sustained me and kept me going and really had me dig down deep. … I’m just here to stand my ground for Him.”

Though he feels “pretty good” about going back to Bremerton and is excited to get back to coaching, Kennedy shared some concern about how the coaches may feel and the “expectations” that come with him going back out to take a knee in prayer on the field. “It’s going to be very interesting, for sure,” he said.

“Those guys who are there at the high school have been building there for eight years,” he said, noting he would do whatever is best for the students, parents and football program.

“I really don’t know if I’m going back for a season or just one more down,” he said. “I feel like God’s kind of keeping me in the dark and keeping me guessing through all this. But I know He’s got my back and everybody else in America’s got my back, so I’m just trying to walk in faith and see what the next steps are. Whatever it is, I’m game.”

Kennedy did share one upcoming plan: He has a book coming out in November, “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story.”

“It should be a huge eye opener,” he said. “And maybe [will] give everybody a little more understanding about why I’m such a stubborn guy and why this landed on my doorstep.”

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