Prayerful Coach Just Wants His Job Back
Joe Kennedy is finally getting his day in court — two years after he was kicked off the football field
A high school football coach who lost his position because he prayed after games is fighting for his constitutional rights.
“My hope is that, at the end of the day, the court will let me get back to the sidelines and back with my team,” said Joe Kennedy, a former coach at Bremerton High School in Washington State, according to his lawyers, who fought for him in court on Monday.
On June 12, judges with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle heard oral arguments in the case.
A Bremerton native, Kennedy served in the United States Marine Corps from 1988 to 2006 and joined the Bremerton football program in 2008. He encouraged and supported many students during his time as the junior varsity football head coach and assistant varsity coach at his Seattle-area high school.
The faith-based movie “Facing the Giants” compelled Kennedy, a practicing Christian, to make a covenant with God to “give thanks through prayer, at the end of each game, for what the players had accomplished and for the opportunity to be part of their lives through the game of football,” according to a lawsuit filed by First Liberty Institute. The law firm specializes in defending religious freedom rights.
Kennedy had a seven-year tradition of kneeling and saying a quick prayer after every game at the 50-yard line. For every game, win or lose, since 2008, he gave thanks to God.
In September 2015, the school district superintendent demanded Kennedy stop praying on the field.
Members of Congress and even President Donald Trump voiced support for Coach Kennedy.
“They put me on suspension and then at the end of the year they gave me an adverse write-up of how well I did my job. I didn’t change anything for eight years,” Kennedy told Trump at an event for retired veterans in October 2016.
Trump called the situation “outrageous.”
The Bremerton School District had no comments on the case, a district spokesperson told LifeZette.
“You explained that you began kneeling at midfield following games when you started coaching at [Bremerton High School], and that over time students asked to join, with the activity evolving organically,” Bremerton Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote in an official letter to the coach on Sept. 17, 2015.
The letter informed Kennedy that he might have inspirational and motivational talks with the students, but those talks could “not include religious expression, including prayer.”
“Thus while I am concerned that you continued the midfield post-game prayer in games on Sept. 11 and 14, 2015, following direction from your head coach as well as the [Bremerton High School] athletic director to cease these activities, I also understand how these practices developed and persisted over time, and know that they have been entirely well-intentioned,” Leavell wrote to Kennedy in the same letter.
Kennedy requested religious accommodation to continue his private practice — yet the school responded by suspending the coach and placed him on paid administrative leave for the rest of the season.
At the time, First Liberty attorneys wanted to meet in person with school officials, but they “refused to meet,” according to the legal organization.
Eventually, the school district did not renew Kennedy’s contract.
On Dec. 15, 2015, after his ouster, Kennedy filed a religious discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Bremerton School District. First Liberty Institute then filed a lawsuit against the district in August 2016.
“Coach Kennedy declined to seek monetary damages,” Mike Berry, deputy general counsel at First Liberty, said in a statement. “Instead, all he wants is for the court to say he has a right to pray, that the school district violated the law by firing him, and for the school to give him his job back so he can continue coaching the kids.”
Berry was present at the oral argument hearing on June 12. “The judges were clearly interested in the case. They asked good, hard questions,” Berry told LifeZette.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to have the court review this case,” Kennedy said in a statement. “I fought in the Marines for our freedom. I never [thought] I’d have to go to court to protect my own.”
When Kennedy first began with the football program, some players asked what he was doing out on the field after games.
He never prayed to a specific religion or deity, nor did he conclude with “Amen.”
“I was thanking God for you guys,” Kennedy recalled saying, according to a statement in 2015. “Then a couple [of the players] said they were Christians and asked if they could join. I responded, ‘It’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.'”
Some students then voluntarily joined him. During any verbal prayers said on the field, Coach Kennedy would not pray to a specific religion or deity, nor would he conclude with “Amen.”
In 2015, when the situation blew up, Kennedy continued to pray, regardless of district orders. First Liberty sent the district a demand letter on Oct. 14, 2015, informing school officials Kennedy was not in violation of the law and that he would continue to pray on the field.
At Bremerton’s homecoming football game on Oct. 16, 2015, Kennedy found himself surrounded by players as he prayed — and even players from the opposing team joined. “All of a sudden I feel all these bodies around me and I’m hoping they’re not kids,” he said in tears after the game, as KIRO 7, a local news station in Seattle, reported.
Kennedy told then Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly in 2015 on “The Kelly File” that he worked “with some of the most incredible kids around” and that the kids supported him.
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On October 23, Superintendent Leavell banned the coach from engaging in “demonstrative religious activity.” Kennedy continued to pray at football games on October 23 and 26; on October 28, school officials suspended him.
The game on the 26th “was actually an away game,” First Liberty’s Berry told LifeZette.
“The fact that it was an away game means that [during] the last game he coached when he was fired, he didn’t actually pray on Bremerton High School property,” Berry said. “He was praying at some other school, but they fired him nevertheless.”
Since then, Kennedy has endured a legal battle that is not yet over.
“At this point, everybody’s kind of in a waiting mode, anticipating the court’s decision,” Berry told LifeZette. “That will guide, or at least influence, what we do next.”