Football Coach Joe Kennedy was fired in 2015 for praying on the 50-yard line after games. He then sued the school district but lost five appeals. That’s when the Supreme Court agreed to hear his case, and the SCOTUS ruling really blew his mind.
In 2015, Joe Kennedy had been a part-time football coach at Bremerton High School located in Washington state for seven years. Kennedy would pray at midfield after each game, alone, with players on either team only joining him if they wished. When the school district learned about Kennedy’s prayers, they told him to stop. Kennedy refused, and despite widespread support from parents and the community, the school district fired him.
Kennedy sued the school district in 2016 on grounds that his right to religious expression as a school employee had been violated by the school district. It was a long road to the Supreme Court, losing five times on the state and federal levels. First, a federal judge denied Kennedy’s “injunction,” then he suffered defeat when the Ninth Court of Appeals sided with the federal judge. The Supreme Court also initially denied hearing his case.
“For almost five long years Joe has had to miss coaching the game he loves,” Attorney Mike Berry said. “Joe has fought — first as a U.S. Marine, then as a coach — to prove that every American has the right to engage in individual religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired. He knows this fight isn’t over.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State has argued that Kennedy’s actions are a “clear violation of religious freedom” because it forces kids to “choose between their own beliefs and appeasing the man who decides the lineup for the game.” Americans United President Rachel Laser said, “Luckily, the school district recognized and put a stop to this coercive act, sending the clear message that the beliefs of all students must be respected.”
On a final appeal, the Supreme Court heard the case and issued its 6-3 ruling, saying the Washington school district was wrong to punish Joe Kennedy for praying on the field after games. Justice Neil Gorsuch delivered the court’s opinion. “Kennedy prayed during a period when school employees were free to speak with a friend, call for a reservation at a restaurant, check email, or attend to other personal matters. He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied. Still, the Bremerton School District disciplined him anyway,” wrote Gorsuch.
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s,” Gorsuch added. “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
Kennedy was speechless right after the ruling. “You won, man,” an interviewer said. “Yeah, I-I-I got nothing,” Kennedy responded. “I’ve known you for years but this is the first time I’ve ever seen you literally speechless,” the Liberty Institue interviewer declared, pointing out the numerous defeats Kennedy and his legal team sustained along the way. “But, you lost and you lost, and you lost, and you lost, and you lost, but then all that matters is the final score.”
When he was able to finally find his words, Kennedy explained what this victory means to him. “This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys,” he said. “I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle.”
Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO, and chief counsel for First Liberty, a religious liberty law firm based in Plano, Texas, which represented Kennedy, hailed the court’s decision as a “tremendous victory for Coach Kennedy and religious liberty for all Americans.”
“Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired,” Shackelford said. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said — Americans are free to live out their faith in public.”