A high school football coach who has spent seven years battling to be allowed to pray on the sidelines after a game has said he is thrilled at the Supreme Court ruling that his actions were protected – and hopes to return to his old job.
Joseph Kennedy, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years, began coaching at Bremerton High School near Seattle in 2008.
But in 2015, the school received a complaint that some athletes felt coerced to join in, and Kennedy’s coaching contract was not renewed the following season. He decided to take the issue to court.
On Monday the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, declaring that his actions were protected under the First Amendment.
Kennedy told DailyMail.com he saw his victory as one for all Americans.
‘I don’t even know how to put it into words,’ he said. ‘They should give me a day off to think about it and process it all.
‘It is just incredible to know that I did nothing wrong. Everything I did was fine.
‘And that the First Amendment is fine and well for everyone.’
He insisted that there had never been any coercion to join him in prayer, but that it had been a personal act of worship.
‘I had a commitment with God that I’d give him thanks after every football game, win or lose,’ Kennedy said.
‘And that’s the way I started out.’
Kennedy answers questions after his legal case outside the Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. on April 25, 2022
Kennedy is pictured in October 2015 praying while surrounded by students. His attorney’s claimed that stopping him from prayer violates his freedom of religion, while the district contended that letting him lead prayers is a violation of the students’ own freedom of religion
‘I had some kids that wanted to join, and they asked, and of course it’s a free country,’ Kennedy said.
‘They can do whatever they want.
‘And that went on fine for eight years.
‘Then someone made a complaint, and they started an investigation.
‘And the lawyers got involved from the school district and they wanted to completely remove all religious aspects from the public schools.
‘So they fired me, and I’ve just been fighting ever since to get back.’
The complaint was made in 2015, and a school official then recommended Kennedy not be rehired for the 2016 season. He did not apply, and instead sought redress through the courts.
Kennedy’s lawyer, Jeremy Dys, said they were shocked they had to fight all the way to the Supreme Court, as they felt the case was clear-cut.
‘It’s unfortunate that it had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to figure that out,’ he told DailyMail.com.
‘We thought, when we took this case on, that we’d be working on it for three weeks. And everything would move on.
‘But the school district kept moving the goalposts.’
Kennedy agreed, saying he was surprised when the lower courts kept on rejecting his claim.
‘I really thought if someone just looked at the facts of the case and the way constitution was written, that they would have to rule in my favor,’ he said.
‘I was optimistic every step of the way, and I was surprised that the lower courts ruled against me – some of them so harshly.
‘I was waiting for someone to get beyond whatever their bias was, and just look at the facts of the case. And rule accordingly.’
Kennedy said he was buoyed by the support from fellow Americans, who agreed with him that it was a private show of faith rather than a coercive action.
‘I wasn’t trying to do anything with anybody else,’ he said.
‘This was just me thanking God for 15 seconds, after a football game.
‘It had nothing to do with anything else.’
He added: ‘I think every American should have been totally 100 percent on my side. From just my perspective.
‘This is about the First Amendment.
‘It has nothing to do with infringing on anybody else’s.
‘This is somebody exercising the freedom that is in our country.
‘And that’s how I look at it.’
He said that ‘many people can relate to that,’ adding: ‘People feel the Constitution has been put aside, and they haven’t had the freedom.
‘And that’s why they are so excited about this.’
Kennedy, who has moved to Florida to help his wife care for her mother, said he hopes to return to his old job at Bremerton High School.
‘That’s all I asked for, from the beginning,’ he said.
‘The only thing I asked for was to be a coach, and thank God after.
‘So I’m waiting for the school district and my lawyers to figure that out.’
In a 6-3 ruling, the high court sided with Kennedy, who was put on leave when the school said that his prayers violated the separation of church and state.
The district claimed to have received a slew of complaints and threats following news of Kennedy’s prayers for allegedly influencing students to join him.
The Supreme Court, which had first declined to hear Kennedy’s case in 2019, ruled on Monday that his prayers were protected under First Amendment rights to free speech.
The decision is the latest in a line of Supreme Court rulings for religious plaintiffs.
In another recent example, the court ruled that Maine can’t exclude religious schools from a program that offers tuition aid for private education, a decision that could ease religious organizations’ access to taxpayer money.
Kennedy said he would happily return to the district to coach again if he wins the case
Kennedy, pictured with students after the 2015 game, said he never forced students to join him. At least one player spoke out anonymously to say he felt pressured to play
The case pitted First Amendment rights to free speech against the separation of church and state.
At issue was whether a public school employee praying alone, but in the public view of students, represented unprotected ‘government speech’ – and if not then does it violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from making any law ‘respecting the establishment of a religion.’
The Supreme Court ruled ‘no’ on both ends.
‘The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,’ Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.
‘A government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.
‘And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.’
The conservative justices’ ruling comes as no surprise given that, after a lower court ruled against Kennedy, they issued a public statement on the preliminary ruling.
In 2019, when they declined to take up the case, four of the conservative justices said the decision in favor of Bremerton School District was ‘troubling’ for its ‘understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers.’
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a member of the court’s liberal bloc, wrote a dissent on Monday claiming that the coach decision ‘sets us further down a perilous path in forcing states to entangle themselves with religion.’
She was joined in her dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan.
The school district said Kennedy was not allowed to lead prayers with students on the field after they joined him in 2015 (pictured). After repeated instances, the district opted to drop his contract in 2016, with Kennedy choosing not to apply again
People are seen praying outside the Supreme Court building in D.C. on June 27, 2022 after SCOTUS ruled in favor of coach Joseph Kennedy
Richard B. Katskee, a lawyer for the Bremerton School District, said that school was entitled to ask employees to refrain from public prayer if students felt pressured into joining.
But some of the court’s conservative justices poked holes in this argument.
They said that the school initially argued that they needed to stop Kennedy from praying because the school would be perceived as endorsing religion.
They suggested that ‘fear of coercion was a rationalization made after the fact. ‘
‘It’s not audible to all players,’ said Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
‘They’re not all there. They don’t have to be there. It’s not a team event. … You’re relying on it being visible, and then the question is, how far does that go?
‘The coach does the sign of the cross right before the game. Could a school fire the coach for the sign of the cross?’
Katskee, of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said that such a display would be ‘perfect fine,’ so long as the coach wasn’t addressing the team or making himself the center of attention.
‘I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not making yourself the center of attention as the head coach of a game,’ Kavanaugh said.
But Kagan implied that the school could be worried that students could feel pressure to take part in prayer, to win the coach’s favor.
Kagan said the school could have thought: ‘We’re worried that the students will feel he gets to put me into a football game, or not. He gets to give me an A in math class, or not. And this is a kind of coercion that’s improper for 16-year-olds.’
Although Kennedy claims no one has ever felt pressured to join him, one student player had come forward anonymously to say he joined in one of the prayers despite his own beliefs due to fear of losing play time.
‘It’s a very dangerous day in America to think of all the school children across this country where schools are supposed to welcome children feeling alienated and potentially ostracized if they don’t pray to play,’ Americans United for Separation of Church and State President and CEO Rachel Laser told KING-TV.
Dys, Kennedy’s attorney, argued that his client acted within his Constitutional rights.
‘What is at stake, in this case, is very simple.
‘It is whether or not coach can take a knee in silent prayer by himself for 15 to 30 seconds, and what that’s gonna mean for every public school teacher and coach across the nation,’ Dys told the TV station.
Coach Joseph Kennedy served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years. He is pictured during the Gulf War
The ruling is the high court’s second major expansion of constitutional protections for religion in the past six days.
Last Tuesday, SCOTUS allowed more public funding of religious entities in ruling in favor of two Christian families who challenged a Maine tuition assistance program that excluded private schools that promote religion.
While Monday’s pro-Kennedy was ruling was somewhat expected, given recent actions of the court, the decision was met with mixed reaction online.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who served under the Trump Administration, called the move a ‘victory’ in securing the American people’s ‘inalienable right to religious freedom.’
‘Our right to pray – anytime and anywhere – is fundamental,’ he tweeted.
‘That right was affirmed today at our highest Court in the Kennedy v. Bremerton decision.
‘I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom!’
Trump’s former press secretary Kayleigh McEnany echoed Pompeo’s remarks, saying: ‘A HUGE victory at the Supreme Court for religious freedom & Coach Kennedy, who merely knelt in silent prayer on the 50 yard line after a football game!
She added: ‘First Liberty Institute has been fighting this case for years & today they have a hard-earned victory for all people of faith!’
Trump-backed Alabama Senate candidate Katie Britt also called the ruling a ‘huge win for religious liberty across our country’ and said the court did the ‘right thing’ by standing up for Kennedy’s rights to religious freedom.
‘Praise God! A win for religious liberty. Coach Kennedy is another Christian who was completely unfairly targeted by the progressive state for his faith,’ added podcaster and author Allie Beth Stuckey.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt also applauded the move as ‘another win’ at SCOTUS.
The ruling was met with mixed reaction online
However, not all reaction towards the ruling was positive.
Many argued the decision was another attempt by the high court to impose its religious agenda on the American people.
‘If Coach Kennedy were named Coach Akbar and he had brought a prayer blanket to the 50 yard line to pray after a game,’ Twitter user Lestje B. Juddged said.
‘I’ve got a 401(k) that says this illegitimate, Christofascist SCOTUS rules 6-3 against him.’
Another said: ‘The judgment in Kennedy has dropped. Today’s deluge of theocratic s**t begins.’
Chip Lupu, a law professor at George Washington University, said: ‘The Court has today gutted The School Prayer Cases and much of the past 60 years of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.
‘Radical and sickening, but that’s what SCOTUS is up to this Term.’
Others criticized the validity of the facts presented during the case.
‘One of the amazing things about the Coach Kennedy case, which has rendered the establishment clause’s separation of church and state basically moot, is that to accomplish this the majority embraced a version of the facts that’s demonstrably false,’ tweeted journalist Moira Donegan.