Football Coach Quits Job He Won Back in Supreme Court Battle Over Midfield Prayers

Bill Pan
By Bill Pan
September 7, 2023USshare
Football Coach Quits Job He Won Back in Supreme Court Battle Over Midfield Prayers
Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee and prays at the 50-yard line after Bremerton's win over Mount Douglas in a high school football game at Bremerton Memorial Stadium in Bremerton, Wash., on Sept. 1, 2023. (Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)

A Marine veteran turned high school football coach who fought and won a legal challenge over his First Amendment right to pray on the field that went to the Supreme Court has resigned after briefly returning to the game.

Joe Kennedy, who had been serving as an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School in Washington since 2008, announced on his personal website Wednesday that he would no longer be with the team. He cited several reasons for his resignation, including having to care for an ailing family member out of state.

“I believe I can best continue to advocate for constitutional freedom and religious liberty by working from outside the school system, so that is what I will do,” the former coach wrote. “I will continue to work to help people understand and embrace the historic ruling at the heart of our case.”

“I encourage all Americans to make their own stand for freedom and our right to express our faith as we see fit. I appreciate the people of Bremerton, the coaches, staff, and especially the students, and wish them all well. Bremerton will always be home.”

In a statement, Bremerton School District confirmed that they have received Mr. Kennedy’s resignation, which is pending board approval at a regular meeting scheduled for Thursday.

The district, which kicked off a nearly eight-year legal battle that was fought all the way to the nation’s highest court, added it won’t be making any more statements about the case or commenting on Mr. Kennedy’s departure, as it’s his personal matter.

In 2015, Mr. Kennedy was suspended for his custom of taking a knee and praying at the 50-yard line after games—something he had been doing since his first game with the Bremerton Knights football team.

According to First Liberty Institute (FLI), a conservative Christian legal group that represented Mr. Kennedy, the school placed increasingly strict rules on his prayers before eventually placing him on paid leave and barring him from the games, despite his compliance with their demands.

At first, Bremerton asked Mr. Kennedy to keep his ceremony separate from student athletes, prompting the coach to wait until the players had left his vicinity to perform his brief, silent prayer. Weeks later, however, the district introduced a new policy, banning all employee while on duty from engaging in “demonstrative religious activity” within view of any student or the public, either silently or audibly.

“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.

“Those directives went against my faith and my constitutional right as an American, and I wasn’t about to give that up,” Mr. Kennedy told The Epoch Times earlier this month.

“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 said. “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.”

In 2016, Mr. Kennedy sued Bremerton, alleging it had violated his constitutional right to free speech and free exercise of religion.

The school district, on the other hand, argued that Mr. Kennedy’s behavior created a constitutional problem, as those prayers could be interpreted as a government endorsement of religion in violation of the establishment clause.

In a 6-3 decision (pdf), the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority sided with the football coach, ruling that the school district violated the Constitution by restricting him from engaging in private, personal religious expression.

Those prayers, the court said, were “private” and “personal” because they were conducted quietly and not in Mr. Kennedy’s capacity as a coach. The decision also highlighted the fact that no student was required to participate, and that Mr. Kennedy was willing to pray alone, even though students routinely joined him.

According to Justice Neil Gorsuch, who penned the court’s majority opinion, it didn’t matter that Mr. Kennedy prayed while wearing a uniform and in the middle of a widely attended event. These facts, he wrote, made the prayers “noticeable” but still didn’t change their “personal” and “private” nature.

“On this understanding, a school could fire a Muslim teacher for wearing a headscarf in the classroom or prohibit a Christian aide from praying quietly over her lunch in the cafeteria,” Justice Gorsuch wrote in rejection of Bremerton’s argument.

The high court did acknowledge that some people might have felt uncomfortable being exposed to Mr. Kennedy’s prayers. Those people could, said Justice Gorsuch, use this experience as a lesson in how to tolerate somebody else’s religious practices.

“Naturally, Mr. Kennedy’s proposal to pray quietly by himself on the field would have meant some people would have seen his religious exercise. Those close at hand might have heard him too. But learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society, a trait of character essential to a tolerant citizenry,” he wrote.

Matt McGregor contributed to this report.

From The Epoch Times

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