Football Coach Fired for Praying Gets His Job Back
Plus, the school agrees to pay a settlement of $1.8 million.
A football coach in Bremerton, Washington, Joseph Kennedy, will be given back his job and have $1.8 million in legal fees paid by the school district as the Supreme Court rules that it’s a violation of religious liberty to prohibit praying after games.
In 2015, Mr. Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, engaged in prayer alone on the field. When students asked if they could join, he welcomed them, without mandating participation or retaliating against those who abstained.
“Lord,” Mr. Kennedy says in his prayer. “I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition, and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.” This was once standard sportsmanship in an America that put “In God We Trust” on its currency.
The school district told Mr. Kennedy to cease and desist. When he refused, he was placed on administrative leave and then fired. With backing from the First Liberty Institute, he began the drive through the courts to defend his stance.
Mr. Kennedy also had strong community support protecting his blindside. At a 2016 game, as he defied the school board, players from his team and rival Centralia High School, a member of the Washington legislature, and what the Seattle Times described as “a huge crowd” knelt on the 50-yard line with him in prayer.
“Tolerance” is a sacrament for the dominant political culture which, since it skews to the secular left, is often hostile to the religious while requiring them to not just tolerate things that run counter to their beliefs but to join in vocal celebration of them — a form of compelled speech.
The First Amendment respects the liberties of all citizens, beginning with the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Constitution also bans religious tests.
In a six to three decision, the Supreme Court ruled for Coach Kennedy. “Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment,” Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority, “protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s.”
The Establishment Clause, Justice Gorsuch said, doesn’t “require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
After agreeing to abide by the ruling, the school board president, Alyson Rotter, said they looked forward “to moving past the distraction” to “focus on what matters most: Providing our children the best education possible.”
One interpretation of the ruling is that Mr. Kennedy was fulfilling that higher academic calling by being a quiet role model, and then offering his players the opportunity to tend to their spiritual health as well as their mental and physical wellbeing.
On the nation’s other coast, the Democratic mayor of New York City has lamented that students have paid the price for sawing the religious leg off this three-pronged stool of education. “When we took prayers out of schools,” he said, “guns came into schools.”
This came closer to government violating the Establishment Clause, but Mr. Adams remained defiant. “Don’t tell me about no ‘separation of church and state,’” he said, referring to President Jefferson’s formulation in a private letter, language that appears nowhere in the Constitution.
“State is the body,” Mr. Adams said. “Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies. I can’t separate my belief because I’m an elected official. When I walk, I walk with God. When I talk, I talk with God. When I put policies in place, I put them in with a Godlike approach to them. That’s who I am.”
It’s who Mr. Kennedy is, too, and the 9 have affirmed that he’s free to be that man. “I always taught my kids to do what’s right,” he said, “and fight for what you believe in.” Long after lectures on fractions and physics have faded, that lesson will linger — a living encounter with the Constitution that no dogeared textbook could hope to match.