School Prayer Case Heads Back to Court

The case of former assistant high school football coach Joe Kennedy, who has been in the national spotlight for his 50-yard line post-game prayers, is back in federal district court.

Motions for summary judgment are due Nov. 14, said Hiram Sasser of First Liberty Institute, the legal firm representing Kennedy. Attorneys are hopeful the case will make its way back to the Supreme Court.

Kennedy was suspended without pay from Bremerton High School in Washington in 2015 for kneeling to pray quietly at midfield after each game. The school district did not renew his contract in 2016. Kennedy claims he was fired and the school district violated his right to freedom of religion and freedom of expression.

The school district maintains Kennedy violated its policy upholding a strict separation of church and state based on the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the establishment of a government-sponsored religion. 

Kennedy and his attorneys filed suit against the Bremerton School District in U.S. District Court in 2017 and also sought an injunction forcing the school district to reinstate him.

The district court denied the injunction and so did the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, so last year Kennedy asked the Supreme Court to review the case. The high court declined in January, but left a glimmer of hope that it may review the case at a later point.

Justice Samuel Alito issued a statement saying the lower court’s justification for denying Kennedy’s case raised issues regarding the free speech rights of public school teachers that were “troubling and may justify review in the future.”

Alito was joined in the statement by three other conservative justices on the bench: Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

Kennedy and First Liberty latched on to this unexpected turn of events.

“It’s very difficult to get a preliminary injunction before the Supreme Court for review,” Sasser said. “And it’s extremely rare for the U.S. Supreme Court to issue a statement when they are denying review.”

Alito’s six-page statement says, in part: “Important unresolved factual questions would make it very difficult if not impossible at this stage to decide the free speech question that the petition asks us to review.”

“The court is essentially questioning the legal basis for the Ninth Circuit’s reasoning,” Sasser said. “The outcome is going to depend on the Ninth Circuit Court or the federal district court changing their minds or the Supreme Court deciding it’s worth casing and reversing. We’re now in the process of filing cross motions.”

Kennedy, who himself attended Bremerton High School, is ready to keep fighting for his job, but he says the case is about so much more. 

A 20-year Marine Corps veteran, Kennedy did a combat tour during Operation Desert Storm. The gunnery sergeant took the role of serving his country seriously.

“I was part of defending everybody’s rights,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are; every American has rights, so it really bothered me when I was told these rights don’t apply to me. And now my feelings are even stronger because before I was fighting to keep my constitutional rights. Now I’m fighting to get them back because I’ve lost them in court.” 

A troubled youth, Kennedy bounced around in foster homes and spent time in a boys’ home in eastern Washington. As an adult, his passion is coaching youth. 

“This was my calling,” he said. “This was my life, serving my community and these young men.”

He and his wife have four kids of their own, three of whom are Bremerton High School graduates, the youngest having graduated last year.

“One of the things I’ve always taught my kids is to do what’s right, even if it’s not popular,” he said. “Especially when things get tough. You don’t stop just because it’s an inconvenience or it may cause a little bit of pain.”

 Ever since he was a kid, he has been a fighter. 

“But now I’m fighting for the right things instead of the things that caused me to make mistakes in the past,” he said. “I will always fight the good fight.”

His current battle over being able to pray on the 50-yard line has bolstered his faith and strengthened his love for God.

Praying on the field with his team had been wonderful. Inspired by the movie “Facing the Giants,” he committed to God when he accepted the coaching job that he would always give thanks, whether his team won or lost. And he never asked students to join him.

After each game, he would walk out to the 50-yard line, alone, and close his eyes in prayer for about 15 seconds, just long enough to give thanks. Then some of his team members asked if they could join him. Eventually, opposing teams joined in. The tradition continued for about eight years until the school received a call after a game in 2015. The fight was on.

He knew he would have enemies, but his support from the community has been overwhelming. And in the midst of the struggle, he began to realize that God was using him, that God wanted him to take a strong stand for his beliefs.

“I have all the faith and confidence that this is going to turn out exactly the way He wants it to,” Kennedy said. “Even if I’m just here to send a message that Americans need to be able to stand up for their rights, then I’ve accomplished something. God’s the One in charge. That gives me peace of mind.”