What Joe Kennedy thought would be a routine jog in 2007 became the first leg on a journey leading him into coaching and eventually to becoming a central figure in the fight to preserve America’s religious liberties.
“I look back and can see that my life was a giant puzzle, and the pieces kind of fell in place in ways that I never would have expected,” he said.
Kennedy was wearing a Bremerton (Wash.) High School football T-shirt when he was on that run nine years ago and was spotted—and stopped—by the school’s athletic director, who somewhat randomly asked Kennedy if he’d ever thought of becoming a coach.
Kennedy, who had played football when he was in the U.S. Marine Corps, initially dismissed the idea of coaching. A year later, he saw the athletic director again and reconsidered the possibility.
Kennedy interviewed for a coaching position in February 2008 and was offered the job the following Friday. Uncertain whether to accept, he decided to pray throughout the weekend.
His answer came after he was flipping TV channels late that Saturday night and unexpectedly came across a Christian movie Facing The Giants about a high school football team.
Kennedy was moved to tears, especially when the coach in the movie challenged himself, his wife and his team to praise God regardless of whether they succeeded or failed.
“It really just dropped me to my knees,” Kennedy said. “I just knew it was my calling to coach. It was awesome how clear He was on that one. I just said, ‘God, I’m going to follow you; I’m going to go.’”
Kennedy made a vow to the Lord to kneel and pray privately at the 50-yard line immediately after every game. For his first seven seasons at Bremerton High, he did so without interference, praying for about 30 seconds each time. Sometimes his players and even opposing players would voluntarily join him.
Kennedy believed the Constitution gave him the right to pray on the field like that, and he felt confident that it was pleasing to the Lord.
He eventually learned, however, that at least some of his bosses didn’t fully agree with the practice.
Bremerton School District administrators notified him in September 2015 that any prayer or religious activity by him or other school employees “must be physically separate from any student activity, and students may not be allowed to join such activity” to avoid perceived endorsement of a particular faith.
Initially, Kennedy complied with the district’s wishes to halt his on-field prayers, but then felt he had violated his covenant with God and resumed the practice.
Kennedy was suspended and later fired after receiving the first poor performance evaluation of his tenure.
Kennedy, represented by First Liberty Institute, a law firm that advocates for religious freedom, eventually filed suit against the school district, asking for his job back. The suit said his dismissal was “baldly unconstitutional” and noted that a fellow coach on the team regularly engaged in a Buddhist chant at midfield after games without reprimand.
The experience has been jarring for Kennedy, who misses coaching and mentoring his players about football and life.
“I was so blessed to be a part of their lives, and I think the reason I was successful in my relationships with them is because I cared more about them [as people] than I did about winning football games and playing the game,” he said.
“When, all of a sudden, it just goes completely 180 [degrees] and you end up sitting in the stands instead of being out there on the field, it definitely brings you to where it has to come down to faith, or else you’ll fail.”
The situation also has been disconcerting for Kennedy, 47, because he witnessed religious persecution firsthand in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait when he served in the Gulf War as a Marine.
“In the military, you fight for the Constitution and for it being a way for all Americans to enjoy their freedom,” Kennedy said. “I would say I was naïve. You almost feel like it was a lie … that somehow people have turned [the Constitution] around and used it for their own agenda.
“I don’t understand how court systems and rulings could take away liberties people are guaranteed to have.”
Kennedy and his attorneys remain resolute that his First Amendment rights have been violated and the Constitution must not be compromised.
“Let’s be clear that what this case boils down to is we’ve essentially asked for coach Kennedy to have a moment of silence,” said First Liberty senior counsel Mike Berry.
“Somebody looking at this wouldn’t be able to tell whether he was tying his shoes or looking for a lost contact lens. But it’s a public school district, so the government is trying to reach that far into our private lives to take control of what we do or don’t do.
“Regardless of whether you care about football or coaches, you should care about this. … The government is basically saying, ‘only if we approve of it.’”
Kennedy filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against the Bremerton School District in August. A month later, a district court ruled against his request for a preliminary injunction that would have forced his immediate rehiring. First Liberty then filed an appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Clearly, what we’ve seen in our country is increasing hostility toward religion and religious freedom, and it’s really sad to see it happening in our public schools with people like Coach Kennedy,” Berry said. “If you’re a parent, that’s exactly the type of person you want coaching and mentoring your kids—people who are going to stand up for what’s right and then teach your children how to stand up for what’s right.”
Berry said Kennedy’s case could have a “chilling effect” on the freedom of expression for other public school employees. It’s yet another example of Christianity being under attack in America.
Kennedy’s case has risen to a national platform and was referenced during the recent presidential campaign. President-elect Donald Trump labeled the Bremerton school district’s treatment of Kennedy “outrageous” and said “it’s very unfair what they’re doing to religious freedom in this country.”
Kennedy attended a a meeting of retired military veterans that the Trump campain visited on Oct. 3 in Herndon, Va., and was spontaneously called upon by Trump to share his story.
“It was that kind of moment when you’re like, ‘Oh my, I’m going to have to address everybody here,’” Kennedy recalled. “But it was a huge blessing and was no coincidence. You can see how it all fits into God’s big plan.”
Kennedy’s supporters include former NFL players Steve Largent (ex-Seattle Seahawks wide receiver) and Chad Henning (ex-Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle), who jointly filed a court brief supporting the coach’s legal case.
Their brief said: “Any attendee of sporting events knows that players and coaches of all ages make, and have long made, their own personal statements. And everyone knows that when players or coaches engage in this type of expressive conduct, they speak for themselves and not for the teams or institutions they represent. … No reasonable observer would conclude that [Kennedy’s] quiet, prayerful post-game observation was school-endorsed speech by a public employee.”
Largent, a Pro Football Hall of Famer and former U.S. congressman, and Kennedy were featured speakers at an event earlier this year in which Largent talked about growing up without a father at home and having the gap for male leadership filled by coaches with the same heart for mentoring young men as Kennedy. Without the influence of those coaches, Largent said he never would have made it to the NFL.
Deeply touched, Kennedy ran up to the podium and hugged Largent.
“It was just like he was one of my players,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy longs to rejoin his team—and to be free to keep his vow to God.
“I want to be out there with my guys,” he said. “I was called to lead young men and to help develop them into being great young men.”
As he boldly stands for religious liberty, Kennedy is inspired by the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy 6:12 to “fight the good fight of faith”—regardless of the consequences.
“It’s not always rainbows and butterflies,” he said. “Some things come at a cost.” ©2016 BGEA