Ex-Football Coach in Court Fight After Kneeling to Pray on Field Points out the Obvious Problem


When is it not OK to kneel on a football field? When you’re bending the knee to pray, apparently.

That’s the lesson to be learned from Joe Kennedy, a Marine veteran and former football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state’s Kitsap County. According to the First Liberty Institute, which is representing him, Kennedy was fired over silent, 15-second prayers after high school football games.

Meanwhile, in sports at amateur, professional and international levels, take a knee for any liberal cause and you’ll be celebrated — provided, of course, you’re not taking a knee for God.

In an interview last week with conservative pundit Todd Starnes, Kennedy said he never expected the now 6-year-old conflict to get as big as it has.

“Well, it all started out thinking, you know, it was just a big misunderstanding and that, you know, we could totally work through this. And it became very evident that the school just wanted to remove absolutely any presence of religion whatsoever. And I could only go so far,” Kennedy said.

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“And, you know, when you draw that line in the sand and they said, you know, ‘you have to pick between your faith and your job,’ that’s when I knew it was really serious and this became something real to me.”

According to First Liberty’s webpage, “Kennedy was head coach for the Bremerton High School junior varsity football team and an assistant coach for the varsity team. Before he even coached his first game, this Marine Corps veteran turned football coach made a commitment to God that he would give thanks after every game—win or lose—for the opportunity to be a football coach and for his players.

“So after his very first football game in 2008, Coach Kennedy waited until the players cleared the field, then took a knee and silently thanked God for his players. Coach Kennedy continued doing this after every game for seven years and no students, coaches or parents ever complained about it. In fact, it was a compliment that started the problems.”

After a school administrator expressed gratitude for Kennedy’s leadership, according to First Liberty, including the example he was setting through prayerfulness, the Bremerton School District investigated.

Should this coach be allowed to pray?

In a September 2015 letter to Kennedy, Superintendent Aaron Leavell described the results of the inquiry.

The letter noted Kennedy’s prayers and his practice of “providing an inspirational talk at the midfield following the completion of the game” with members of both teams.

The letter stated Kennedy’s talks had “overtly religious references.”

“Every activity has been voluntary,” Leavell wrote. “Nevertheless, as I believe you now understand, both activities would very likely be found to violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, exposing the district to significant risk of liability.”

In October of 2015, First Liberty lawyers responded with a letter of their own, arguing that “the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is sponsored by the government but protects religious activity that is initiated by individuals acting privately, as is the case with Coach Kennedy.”

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“No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state. Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged in private religious expression upon which the state may not infringe.”

First Liberty’s web page states that it asked for a compromise in which Coach Kennedy could be given 15 seconds of silent prayer at the end of the game, but the district wouldn’t allow him that.

“The school district said any perceived violations of their policy ‘cannot be tolerated,’” the web page stated.

“They ordered Coach Kennedy to stop praying after the game and then sent a letter to Coach Kennedy announcing that he was suspended and may not ‘participate, in any capacity, in BHS football program activities.’ The district suspended Coach Kennedy the day before the final varsity football game of the season and refused to renew his contract, resulting in the termination of his coaching career.”

Kennedy sued for religious discrimination but a federal district court dismissed the suit, a dismissal that was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, according to First Liberty.

First Liberty filed for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court to get the high court to take it up. The Supreme Court declined, according to First Liberty, but four justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — urged the 9th Circuit to reconsider its decision due to serious concerns.

“If this case were before us as an appeal within our mandatory jurisdiction, our clear obligation would be to vacate the decision below,” the four justices stated, according to First Liberty.

After another round through district court, the 9th Circuit again sided with the school district, according to First Liberty.

In an order dated July 19, the full circuit declined a First Liberty request to hear the case. A three-judge circuit court panel had sided with the school district in March, CBN reported.

But the law firm is far from giving up.

“Banning coaches from praying just because they can be seen is wrong and contradicts the Constitution,” Mike Berry, First Liberty Institute’s general counsel said after the 9th Circuit’s latest decision, according to First Liberty.

“Today’s opinion threatens the rights of millions of Americans who simply want to be able to freely exercise their faith without fear of losing their job.  We plan to appeal, and we hope the Supreme Court will right this wrong. This fight is far from over.”

In his interview with Starnes on Friday, Kennedy noted that his decision to kneel was held to an entirely different standard from athletes protesting the American flag or national anthem.

“Even if I happened to have just been down and tie my shoe, somebody would say, ‘Oh, look there, he’s kneeling again.’ And so, yeah, you can’t even close your eyes for a second. You can’t throw your hands up in the air during a play,” Kennedy told Starnes.

“It’s just so ridiculous to me how much, you know, of free liberty is just been gone and taken away from us.”

In addition, First Liberty lawyer Jeff Mateer told Starnes the forces of rabid secularism were teaming up against Kennedy’s First Amendment rights.

“You’ve got a school district being hostile who, by the way, now is represented by the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,” Mateer said.

“If that doesn’t say something in itself, Todd, that these hardcore activists who don’t believe there should be any religion in public life are now representing the school district.

“One of the judges goes at length to explain that he believed the way Coach Joe was praying was inappropriate,” he added.

“It’s not right for judges to tell us what is the proper way to pray or not pray. That’s up to us. That’s up to Coach Joe. And it’s not for judges to tell us what’s appropriate or not appropriate.“

Kennedy told Starnes he knew where he stood in the fight.

“I spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, you know, supporting and defending the Constitution so everybody has the right, even if I personally don’t agree with it,” Kennedy said.

“But the Constitution and the rights of all Americans apply to all Americans. So the same, you know, rights that give them the liberty to take a knee in protest for injustices even at the Olympics now. I mean, they could do that, but I can’t. I’m a high school football coach. I can’t even take a knee for 10 seconds and say ‘thanks’ to the God who created me. There’s something seriously wrong with the country right now.”

Some free speech is more equal than others, apparently. What a surprise.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture