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Back on the field


WORLD Radio - Back on the field

Eight years after losing his job as assistant football coach, Joe Kennedy returns for one more Bremerton High game

Bremerton assistant coach Joe Kennedy after a high school football game in Bremerton, Wash. Associated Press/Photo by Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun

NICK EICHER, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: one last game.

Yesterday, we reported that the high school football coach who took his case to the Supreme Court and won in 2022 resigned on Wednesday.

Before he resigned, he coached Bremerton High School’s first game of the season a week ago today.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: What did it take for Coach Kennedy to get to this point, and what’s next?

WORLD Radio intern Noah Burgdorf has the story.

NOAH BURGDORF, INTERN: High School football games are loud. Marching bands. Cheerleaders. And of course, players. But for Bremerton High School Assistant Coach Joe Kennedy, the football field is also a place for silence.

Coach Kennedy was inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants” to kneel on the 50-yard line to pray after every game. Something he’s done since he was hired in 2008.

In September 2015 the school district investigated Joe Kennedy over concerns that his midfield prayers violated the school's policy on “Religious-Related Activities and Practices.” According to their logic, Kennedy’s prayers were a personal display of religion, rather than an objective, educational one. Kennedy explains.

KENNEDY: This was a question that I asked, am I allowed to pray after a football game, that's how this all started. And they put their heels in and wanted to fight this fight. I didn't want this at all. I just wanted us to be able to work it out. And it just ended up going sideways, and this was a fight that needed, or a question that needed to be answered.

The district concluded his public prayer violated the state's policies and asked Kennedy to discourage students from joining, and the coach complied by kneeling alone. Even so, the school district eventually placed him on administrative leave.

KENNEDY: No American should ever have to worry about their faith and their jobs intersecting and competing with each other.

First Liberty Institute took up Kennedy’s case in 2016. Four years later, the District Court of Washington ruled in favor of the school, as did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals later in 2020. Kennedy’s legal team lost their appeal in five different courts before the Supreme Court accepted the case in January 2022. Hiram Sasser is Kennedy’s lawyer.

SASSER: Zero and Five going into the Super Bowl. And it was a difficult road to hoe. I thought this in 2015 was going to be a three-week project. And the school district would agree.

Five months later, the justices ruled 6-3 in Kennedy’s favor—ensuring he would be permitted to return to the field and allowed to kneel after nearly seven years of sitting in courtrooms.

KENNEDY: I feel like I've been fighting and battling the giant for years and years and years. And it's one giant after another. Each time we went to court, it felt like a new giant was forming.

Kennedy versus The Bremerton School District effectively overturns the precedent of Lemon versus Kurtzman. That case set a standard that made it easy to challenge religious expression in the public square. Not anymore. Requiring students to pray with coaches and teachers is still not allowed, but the Kennedy case clarifies that educators retain the right to pray privately in the presence of students.

SASSER: You have an old Supreme Court decision that had been cited thousands of times, and now has a big red X next to it. And so, it's a bit like it's a brand-new day in the law, and the old regime of censoring religious speech in public schools is over.

During the seven-year legal battle, Kennedy and his family relocated to Florida and didn’t go unnoticed. Earlier this year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis asked Kennedy to join his presidential campaign as a part of his faith advisory board. The coach declined.

Instead, he focused on returning to Bremerton High School. While Kennedy was technically reinstated in late 2022, both he and the coaching staff agreed that returning in the middle of the season might negatively affect team chemistry. So he waited until this Fall.

This past Friday marked his official return to the gridiron. Bremerton High defeated Mount Douglas Secondary School, 27-12. After the victory, Kennedy made his way out to the 50-yard line by himself, knelt, and prayed.

KENNEDY: What do you say to the one who got me here to begin with? It was just thank you. And I had nothing else to say to him. I’ve never been great at prayers, but I was just so thankful for being part of this. It was just awesome.

Happy ending? Well, not exactly.

On Wednesday, Kennedy handed in his resignation, igniting a firestorm of questions about his motives, the school’s response, and what comes next.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Noah Burgdorf.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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