The Supreme Court agrees I have a right to pray and I am glad I stayed in the fight

When I went to the center of the football field for what turned out to be the last time on October 26, 2015, I remembered the day eight years earlier that I committed to God that I would give him thanks at the 50-yard line after every game I coached, win or lose.  For the last 2,436 days since I walked off that field – because the school district fired me for my prayers – I’ve been fighting to get back to my guys. 

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court April 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games.

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court April 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

As of Monday, the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court said that I could.

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I suppose fighting is just a part of who I am.  I grew up on the streets and seemed to always find a way into a fight somewhere.  Thankfully, the Marine Corps allowed me to fight for something that truly mattered: our freedom.  Every American deserves someone to fight for them, for their freedom, and I was proud to do so. 

 When I got out of the Corps, I hoped I would find a new team to fight alongside.  I didn’t know that would be as a high school football coach.  

Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett. 

Members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, April 23, 2021. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.  (Erin Schaff/The New York Times via AP, Pool, File)

In high school, I was too small to play football.  And, there were plenty of other coaches far more qualified to chart the “X’s and O’s” than me.  But, I quickly learned to love my guys – the players I was honored to coach.  Some of them reminded me of myself: angry at the world, hungry for a meal, needing a safe place to sleep that night, and perhaps a new pair of shoes without holes in them.  When they got in trouble at home, school, or even with the law, I could relate.  Someone needed to fight for them, too.

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Not everyone has agreed with my fight in this case.  That’s ok.  The American ideal of freedom is strong enough for us to disagree and still love each other as Americans.  But we should all agree that no one should be fired from their job just because someone can be seen engaged in a private prayer. 

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy stands at the center of the field on the 50 yard line at Bremerton Memorial Stadium. 

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy stands at the center of the field on the 50 yard line at Bremerton Memorial Stadium.  (Coach Joe Kennedy (Courtesy Liberty Institute))

Fights leave scars too.  As a boxer and mixed martial arts fighter, my nose took a beating from bouts in the ring and octagon.  The pain in this case came from the scars it has left on those closest to me.  My wife and kids have taken the brunt of it.  When my case started, my kids were still attending the school where I coached and my wife was the school district’s director of Human Resources.  It hurt all of us to go through this, but we did it together. 

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My players, too, felt the pain.  For some of them, it meant they had no one to stand beside them on their Senior Night after the district banned me from the field. 

Why didn’t I give up the fight?  There’s no way that I could.  I pushed my guys on the field to never stop fighting until the whistle blew, to always give it everything they have until the last down.  I simply could not give up my fight, to compromise the commitment I made to God, and keep their respect on the field.  I had to keep fighting. 

Former Bremerton, Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy.

Former Bremerton, Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy. (First Liberty Institute)

In every fight, someone loses.  Too many times in the last nearly seven years, I’ve had one question haunt me if I let it: What if I lose?  

Not only would that mean I would never be back on the football field, but it meant that my case might mean other coaches and teachers could lose their job.  Worse, a small part of the Constitution I swore to defend in the U.S. Marine Corps would be weakened, not because of a fight I lost on the battlefield, but in a court room.

Thankfully, though, this fight is won. I hope it means that our public school teachers and coaches don’t have to hide their faith from view.  For my part, I can’t wait to get back to the field, to be with my guys, pushing them to be the best players that they can be, to give everything they have for every second of every game. 

Win or lose, when the whistle blows and everyone shakes hands, you’ll find me at the 50-yard line on a knee in private prayer. 

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