Joe Kennedy – the now-famous Christian football coach – has officially been reinstated in his coaching position after being fired from his job back in 2015. Coach Kennedy was fired for taking a knee and quietly praying at the 50-yard line following football games.
Starting in 2008, Kennedy served as a football coach at Bremerton High School. For seven years running, he would kneel at midfield to pray silently for a few moments after each game. Sometimes players would join him. At other times, he would pray alone.
From 2008 until 2015, no one complained about the coach’s practice. But in 2015, after someone commented positively about Coach Kennedy’s prayer routine, Bremerton School District demanded he cease his practice of post-game personal prayer, since the school district believed that it characterized an unconstitutional “endorsement” of religion by the school district, since Kennedy was a school official.
After the coach refused to cease his practice of post-game personal prayer, Bremerton School District placed him on paid administrative leave, and subsequently fired him.
For eight long years, Coach Kennedy waged a lengthy legal battle, trying to vindicate both his right to freely exercise his religion and his free speech rights.
In delivering the opinion for the court, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that Coach Kennedy had lost his job “because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.”
However, as Justice Gorsuch wrote,
Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.
Justice Gorsuch continued:
The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.
According to a stipulation agreed to by Kennedy’s attorneys and lawyers from Bremerton School District, the district had to rehire Kennedy as an assistant coach of the Bremerton High School football team on or before March 15, 2023.
In an email to supporters on March 11, First Liberty Institute, the nonprofit legal organization which represented Coach Kennedy pro bono throughout the court proceedings, announced that the coach has finally been rehired after the eight-year drama.
“Coach Joe Kennedy has been officially reinstated as a football coach at Bremerton High School!” the organization said. “The Bremerton School District sent us a letter this week confirming he’s once again a member of the coaching staff.”
Jeremy Dys, Special Counsel for Litigation & Communications at First Liberty, released the following video sharing the news:
Hopefully Coach Kennedy’s legal struggles have been educational both for the students he coaches, and for the public writ large.
While the Establishment Clause states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the Free Exercise clause refers to the provision that Congress shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
According to the 2022 Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, American’s knowledge of our first freedoms is sorely lacking.
The survey found:
- Less than half of U.S. adults (47%) could name all three branches of government.
- 63% of respondents could name the freedom of speech as one of the protections specified in the First Amendment.
- Only 24% of respondents could name the freedom of religion as a First Amendment guarantee.
In the case of Coach Kennedy, the Supreme Court held that when people briefly engage in a personal religious observance, the U.S. Constitution protects them from government reprisal.
It’s unfortunate that Coach Kennedy has lost out on nearly a decade of coaching and the ability to be a positive influence on the lives of young men. Our nation needs more role models like Coach Kennedy, not less.
And yet, it’s good news that the coach can finally get back to doing what he loves. As the coach said following the Supreme Court’s ruling, “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys.”
Now he can do just that.
Congratulations, coach! And good luck next season!
Photo from First Liberty Institute.