BREMERTON, Wash.—Fans from both teams cheered as Joe Kennedy knelt in silent prayer for 10 seconds at the 50-yard line. It was the moment of culmination after a more than 7-year legal battle over prayer that ended with a victory for Kennedy at the Supreme Court.
“I used to run marathons quite a bit and you never think you’re going to get to the end, and when you finally see that finish line… that’s what tonight was,” Kennedy told The Daily Signal at the end of his first game back on the field Friday night after his legal battle.
“We finished the race and we did it together and there’s nothing better than keeping the faith throughout that,” Kennedy said, standing with his wife.
“I said ‘thank you’ probably 30 times,” Kennedy said when asked what he prayed while kneeling after the game.
“I had no other words,” he added. “What do you say to the one who got me here to begin with? It was just, ‘thank you,’ and I had nothing else to say to Him. I’ve never been great at prayers but I was just so thankful for being part of this, it was just awesome.”
Kennedy lost his assistant football coaching job at Bremerton High School, about 30 miles west of Seattle, in 2015 after he refused to break a covenant he made with God to take a knee in prayer at the 50-yard line after football games.
From the time he began the legal fight, all Kennedy said he wanted was to coach the young men of Bremerton High School and give thanks to God afterwards, a desire that was fulfilled under the lights Friday night with a winning game for the Bremerton Knights.
“There is nothing better than America and the Constitution,” Kennedy told press after praying on the field. The coach said his legal victory proves that the Constitution is “alive and well.”
Kennedy was not the only one who was excited about his return to the Bremerton High School coaching staff. Kristen Merrill, who graduated from high school in Bremerton in 1980, told The Daily Signal she is “really proud” of Kennedy “for not caving and standing for his rights as a believer to exercise his religion.”
“I love it,” Jeremy McCrimmom said when asked about his thoughts on Kennedy’s return.
“You know, as far as I’m concerned that’s a constitutional right,” said McCrimmom, who has two children who attend Bremerton High School. Kennedy “fought for that and he won at the highest court in the nation and we definitely need to protect the rights of Americans.”
In response to Kennedy’s First Amendment victory and reinstatement at Bremerton High School, Americans across the country were invited to take a knee in prayer with the coach. The First Freedom Challenge is an initiative of Restoring Faith in America, a project of First Liberty Institute, a nationwide legal organization protecting religious liberty that represented Kennedy throughout the legal battle.
“Coach Joe Kennedy is returning to the field to take a knee in prayer, and it’s our prayer that coaches, players, parents and fans all over the country will join him,” the initiative’s website reads. “But we need people of faith from coast-to-coast to challenge their friends and families to come together to make this night a national night of prayer.”
Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, said the Supreme Court’s ruling on Kennedy’s care “changed the face of American constitutional law.”
“It changed the default from being censor anything religious in schools to we have to accommodate things that are religious in schools,” Sasser said.
In March, the Bremerton School Board voted on a nearly $2 million settlement with the assistant football coach. The district agreed to “settle the attorney fees claim for $1,775,000,” according to information shared on the Bremerton schools’ website. The attorney’s fees are to be paid out over the course of three fiscal years.
Kennedy said he has “no qualms” with the Bremerton School District and has “never had a hard feeling toward Bremerton,” adding that he hopes to feel “more embraced this coming week now that this part’s over.”
The Bremerton School District issued a statement ahead of Friday night’s game saying the district will “fully comply with the court’s order to treat Mr. Kennedy’s personal religious conduct the same way the district treats all other personal conduct by coaches at football games.”
The Bremerton School District added that it “remains steadfast in its commitment to respecting the rights and religious freedom of students, families, and school staff,” and that it looks “forward to moving past the distraction of this nearly 8-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible.”
Kennedy and his wife moved to Florida during the legal battle with Bremerton School District and, now that Kennedy has his job back, press questioned him multiple times Friday night on his future plans and whether he will continue coaching.
“We have practice on Monday, so I have no plans to leave,” Kennedy said, adding “I’m going to do whatever God tells me to do.”
Kennedy, now 54, first started the practice of praying after games when he began coaching at the school in 2008. Soon, players asked if they could join him while he prayed, to which he says he replied, “This is a free country, it’s America. You can do whatever you want to do.”
For years Kennedy continued the practice of praying after games and students often joined him. Then, at the beginning of the 2015 football season, Kennedy was told he could no longer pray with students. He agreed and said he never prayed with students again. But then Kennedy says the school lawyers got involved and he was told he could no longer pray at the 50-yard line even by himself.
“And that’s where I just had to draw a line,” Kennedy said during a previous documentary interview with The Daily Signal.
The football coach continued to pray after the games and lost his job as a result.
“I decided to file the lawsuit after I realized that I was not going to be able to win this by myself,” Kennedy said. “There was no way I could talk to the school district anymore, their lawyers said I was not to be in any contact with the school or anyone at the school, unless it was through the lawyers.”
After the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Bremerton School District, Kennedy and his attorneys with First Liberty Institute appealed to the Supreme Court. The high court heard arguments in Kennedy’s case in April 2022, and on June 27, 2022, Kennedy received the victory he had been fighting for.
In a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court affirmed Kennedy’s right to take a knee in silent prayer in view of the public after high school football games.
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion, adding that the Constitution “neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
Kennedy’s story of faith and determination captured the attention of the nation and compelled the football coach to write a book sharing his story and explaining why he chose to spend years in and out of courtrooms for the right to pray silently on the field after games. His book “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story” is due out Oct. 24.
“Those prayers I prayed on the 50-yard line after the Bremerton High School football games were never for attention, and certainly never to proselytize impressionable minors,” Kennedy writes. “As a 20-year Marine Corps veteran who fought in the first Gulf War, I simply took issue with my constitutional rights being assaulted—the rights I had risked my life to support and defend against when I took my oath of enlistment.”
Kennedy also details little-known stories about his troubled youth and his service in the Marines.
A movie about Kennedy’s life, also called “Average Joe,” is in production by GND Media Group, producer of the popular movie “God’s Not Dead.” A release date has not been announced.
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