When school officials fired Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy in 2015 for refusing to stop kneeling in silent prayer at midfield after games, the Washington state native’s faith faced its greatest challenge.
The path to a legal victory was a long, drawn-out grind, filled with ups and downs that sometimes pitted his marriage against a promise that Joe had made to God when he started coaching after an 18-year career as a Marine.
His wife, Denise, was the school district’s director of human resources throughout the six-year court battle that resulted in the landmark Supreme Court ruling in June upholding Joe’s—and all public school employees’—right to pray while at work.
“We were just at odds,” Joe recalls, as the free speech and religious liberty case bounced back and forth in the courts. “Denise was under a huge amount of stress. School administrators were getting death threats. They were getting hate mail. In the news every day, it was just horrible.”
But this wasn’t the first time Joe and Denise’s marriage had floundered.
In 2006, when the local justice of the peace officiated their vows, it marked the fulfillment of a pledge that Joe had made when they were both just 9-year-old neighbors.
Nearly three decades later, Denise had escaped an abusive marriage and discovered that Jesus was her anchor. But Joe’s self-reliant dismissal of God, and his refusal to attend church with her and her three young children, was sinking their marriage from the start.
Then one Sunday, after begrudgingly attending church with his family for about two months, everything changed. Joe walked to the altar at the end of the worship service, repented of his pride and professed faith in Christ.
“Here’s this Marine, everybody knows me as this tough guy, and I’m sitting up on my knees, crying my eyes out like a baby,” he says. “I told God when I accepted Him into my life as my Savior that I was all in.”
About three months later, Joe was channel surfing late one night when he finally put down the TV remote and started watching “Facing the Giants,” a movie about a football coach who committed himself to honoring God, whether his team won or lost. Bremerton High School football staff had been asking Joe to help them coach ever since he returned to his hometown two years earlier.
“God reached right through that TV screen, through Alex Kendrick’s mouth, and just grabbed my heart,” Joe recalls. “I thought I was having a heart attack. I was on the floor. I couldn’t breathe. And I’m just sobbing.”
Convinced that God was calling him to influence the football team for His glory, Joe joined the coaching staff the next day. And for the next seven football seasons, he said a silent prayer of thanks to God while kneeling at midfield after every game he coached.
After Joe was fired, the school district office became a lonely place for Denise to work, and the stress of it all followed her home. One evening, after another tear-filled argument, Joe rushed out of their bedroom to go for a drive and calm down. As he headed downstairs, he stopped to view a YouTube video that his lawyers with First Liberty Institute had sent to his phone.
His legs went right out from under him as he watched. Alex Kendrick was standing on the football field where he had directed and starred in “Facing the Giants,” and he was speaking directly to Joe, encouraging him to stay true to his commitment to God.
“I started falling down the stairs,” Joe says. “I grabbed the banister, and that thing broke off the wall and Denise comes running out of the bedroom to see what’s going on.
“We just sat there with our arms around each other, watching the video and crying. We didn’t have to say a single word. It was like she instantly knew that this was a God thing. God was in control of this.”
Suddenly the chaos of their lives faded as they remembered how God had used the Kendrick Brothers’ movie to call Joe into coaching in 2008. Unlike the many fights that Joe had started throughout his childhood growing up in Bremerton, this fight had found him. And this time Joe was learning that the battle was the Lord’s and not his.
Trusting in God’s unconditional love initially seemed as foreign as the military posts and battlefields on which Joe had defended his country. Even into adulthood, he was still longing to prove he wasn’t the regrettable mistake his adoptive parents had claimed.
“Many times, I heard that the worst thing they ever did was the day they adopted me,” he recalls.
At age 8, he began running away regularly to escape the verbal abuse and rejection, often spending nights at a friend’s house across the street. “They took me in a lot,” he says. “They were the ones that saved me and raised me. I did a lot of couch surfing.”
Young Joe’s anger continued to boil over as his adoptive parents’ five biological children took precedence in the home. He was eventually released into the foster care system.
By age 13, his violent behavior had gotten him expelled from several schools and foster homes, landing him in a military-style boys home called the Flying H Youth Ranch in eastern Washington, not once but twice.
When Joe returned to Bremerton, he joined the Army National Guard as a part-time enlistee during his junior year in high school. Then on his 18th birthday, he joined the Marines after completing his senior year requirements in the first half of the school year.
In the Marine Corps, he finally found a home. “I had friends, people that I could really rely on. I put my trust in them with my life and they did the same with me.”
But no matter how far away Joe’s deployments took him from Bremerton, his thoughts would not let go of Denise. He kept in touch with her during his first couple of duty stations in Okinawa, Japan, and Korea, mailing her letters and souvenirs.
Finally, on leave from Okinawa, at age 20, Joe was ready to surprise his childhood crush and make good on that promise he made to himself at age 9. But when he arrived in Seattle, he learned from Denise’s cousin and aunt that she was living with her boyfriend in Spokane. “We’re on the ferry going from Seattle to Bremerton and I chucked the engagement ring into the Puget Sound,” he says.
Over the next two decades, Joe experienced two failed marriages while ascending to gunnery sergeant in the Marines. Along the way, he served in the 3rd Marine Battalion’s artillery division, famously known as Task Force Ripper, which conducted ground-led bombing missions ahead of the advance of infantry battalions into Iraq during the Gulf War.
Years later, while in Tacoma, Washington, for marksmanship training, he reconnected with Denise during her weekend birthday celebration. Within six months they were married, and Joe retired from the Marines to help parent her three young children while she recovered from a mini-stroke.
For the next 10 years, he worked full time at Bremerton’s naval shipyard off the Puget Sound. He later learned that the woman who worked security and badged him in nearly every workday was actually his birth mother. She had gotten pregnant while her boyfriend was in Vietnam. Her parents made her give the baby up for adoption before allowing her to marry her boyfriend when he returned from the war.
Six years ago, that same boyfriend—now his mother’s longtime husband—asked Joe if he could adopt him. Joe, who was 47 at the time, gladly agreed.
As for the couple who adopted him as a child, Joe says: “I wished the worst upon them for so many years, but after I became a Christian, all the hate melted away completely. I met with them once, and I said, ‘I forgive you guys.’”
Joe realizes the reconciling and redeeming power of prayer has sustained him—before and after his firing seven years ago by Bremerton school administrators. And he is looking forward to kneeling in prayer once again next fall at the 50-yard line of the Bremerton High School football field to express his thanks to God for His faithfulness through all the legal challenges.
“When I took on coaching and I took on this fight, it’s just what God’s called me to do,” he says. ©2022 BGEA
Photo: Courtesy of First Liberty