A school football coach who was fired for praying in public after the end of each of his team’s games has embarked on a years-long legal battle to fight for his religious rights.
Joe Kennedy, a former coach at a high school in Bremerton, Washington state decided to fight in court the school’s decision to suspend him for praying in public after each game. The coach wanted to set an example for his students to stand up and fight for what is right until the end.
“As long as I’m breathing, I’m going to be fighting. That’s what I expect from them,” Kennedy told EpochTV’s “Crossroads” program.
Kennedy became a coach after retiring from the Marines after 20 years of service. Being a Marine meant for Kennedy that he was part of something bigger than himself. “I was basically the gatekeeper for the Constitution to make sure that everybody in America … is protected equally across the board.
“As Marines, we don’t like to lose a fight, we keep fighting until the end.”
Kennedy’s final appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court.
Kennedy’s determination to fight his case was also informed by his deep faith “I never turned my back on God, and I never will,” he said.
Praying After Each Game
After Kennedy retired from the Marines in 2006 he found a job as a high school football coach. At that time, Kennedy was a new Christian and did not know how to practice his faith yet but was very devoted to it. “I was going to go wherever God called me to go,” he said.
He had not coached before and wanted to take his new responsibilities seriously, so he first tried to learn more from his wife and two children who attended the same high school where their father was going to work.
Kennedy was also watching movies trying to figure out how to go about coaching and came across the movie “Facing the Giants.”
“Facing the Giants” tells the story of a Christian high school coach who uses his steadfast faith to battle “the giants of fear and failure,” according to an IMBd summary. The coach in the movie uses faith to challenge his losing football team to achieve the impossible and the team starts winning.
The movie really inspired Kennedy. “God … dropped me to my knees,” Kennedy described his feelings after watching the film. “I was sobbing my eyes out and saying: ‘God, I’m all in. I understand. I hear you calling me to do this job.’”
After every single game—regardless of whether his team won or lost—Kennedy went to the 50-yard line, the midway point of the football field, took a knee, and prayed silently. “I just take a knee and thank God for the opportunity to be out there and for what those young men just did. And that went on for years before anybody even said a word.”
The prayer took him about 22 to 27 seconds at most, Kennedy said.
Six months into the job, some students asked Kennedy what he was doing while taking a knee. Upon finding out that he was thanking God for the team effort, they asked him for permission to pray with him. Kenned told them, “this is America, do whatever you want to do” and some started praying together with the coach.
Later, Kennedy’s team captain asked for permission to invite other teams to pray with them. The coach agreed and by 2015, the last year of his coaching, every opposing team joined them on the 50-yard line in the prayer after the game, Kennedy said.
One student did not want to pray and wanted to take care of other team members and the equipment instead, Kennedy said, adding that he agreed to it and later promoted this boy to be the team captain.
The problems started after an educator from another school district attended a football game in which Kennedy’s team played and complimented the school principal for both teams coming together after the game, Kennedy continued the story. “That’s what started the whole investigation.”
The coach said that at that time he “had the open dialogue” with the superintendent and thought that everything could be worked out. However, later the school district told Kennedy to choose between his faith and his job, the coach said.
“It’s so tough having to choose between the two, the passion, and the thing—that you absolutely love in life—of being out there with those guys.”
Kennedy said that complying with the school district requirements would have meant “turning his back to God.”
The school “kept changing the goalposts on [Kennedy] even more throughout the rest of the season.” said attorney Jeremy Dys with First Liberty Institute, a religious liberty legal organization representing Kennedy.
First, the school asked the coach to stop praying with the players and he did, Dys said on EpochTV’s “Crossroads” program. “The only covenant he had made with God was that he would take a knee in silent prayer by himself.”
At one game, when Kennedy was praying by himself, the school suspended him and then put a note in his file: “do not rehire,” Dys said. “So he was fired from the coaching position just because he took a knee in silent prayer after the game,” an act called by the school a “demonstrative religious activity,” the attorney explained.
“The First Amendment is very clear that Congress shall make no law regarding the free exercise of religion and it also protects speech,” Dys said. The school district, however, said that “you can engage in this speech but not that speech,” he explained. Putting a censor bar over the fact that Kennedy engaged in religious activity is not allowed under the Constitution, Dys said.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires the school district to accommodate Kennedy’s religious beliefs, Dys said, but the accommodation the school offered would require Kennedy to leave the football field and go to pray in a school building located behind two fields.
“That’s not an accommodation that is reasonable under the circumstances, nor should anybody be required to go hardly out of their way to be able to follow the dictates of their religion,” Dys said.
“The law and the Constitution protect the rights of American citizens to be able to speak about their faith, and even be people of faith while even they’re on the job. And so when that is denied to people like coach Kennedy, we lose a very significant part of our freedom,” Dys explained.
Kennedy said that his team players wanted him to continue coaching and asked him why he did not give in to the school’s requirements. The coach admitted that he also went through an internal struggle about whether to give in to the pressure.
He did not want to lose his football team, something he had dedicated his life to. His two children were in high school and one in middle school at that time, and his wife was also working for the school district. “This was a fight that hit me from every single angle.”
He did not want to show his team that he quit the fight when things became uncomfortable, so he decided to fight until the very end, Kennedy explained. He wanted to lead his football team by example. “I can’t think of a stronger example for these young men to be able to stand up and fight for what is right.”