Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, is waiting for a ruling to emerge from the Supreme Court any day in his case about prayer. And he insists he is a centrist that most Americans would agree with on religious freedom issues and the Constitution.
Kennedy, a former U.S. Marine, made a habit of walking to the 50-yard line after each game to bend a knee and offer a prayer of gratitude. As more players gathered with Kennedy for his prayer over time, some players and families said they felt “compelled to participate” out of fear they would lose playing time. Eventually, the Bremerton School District began battling Kennedy over his practices involving his faith and his work. He lost his job. And he filed a lawsuit in 2016. After a series of appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2019 but did hear the case this year.
NFL players such as Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles and others submitted a brief supporting Kennedy and invoking Colin Kaepernick as someone who also exercised his free speech rights. Another group of former professional players and college athletes signed their names to a brief in support of the school district, warning that religious speech like Kennedy’s was coercive.
As he waited for the ruling in early July, coach Kennedy and one of his lawyers, Stephanie Taub, spoke with ReligionUnplugged.com contributor Jovan Tripkovic.
Jovan Tripkovic: Since 2015, your quiet life has turned upside down. You lost your job, became a nationally recognized figure and had a landmark case before the Supreme Court. In what ways have you changed as a person since this journey started, and what was the place of your faith in it?
Joseph Kennedy: I would say that I haven’t changed. I’m the same guy I’ve always been. I am still a knucklehead and one of the biggest sinners out there. I spend half my time thanking God and the other half asking him for forgiveness, but if anything, it made my marriage stronger. The biggest change is probably just in my faith and my marriage which has solidified because I’ve had to rely on God and my wife to balance me out.
Tripkovic: Your legal fight and silent prayer devotion transformed you throughout the years into the symbol of cultural warrior. On the other side, liberals believe that you are just another grifter who wants to make a name for himself. How do you feel about becoming such a divisive figure?
Kennedy: I don’t feel that way. You always have 10% of people on both sides that are the loudest. They’re the ones that you hear the most, but I think most people are right in the middle, and they’re like me. They don’t see what the big deal is. The people from either side … if they ever met me or just sat there and read the facts of the case or even just opened their eyes and mind a little bit, I’d have loved to have a conversation with people and let them know what my thoughts are and listen to what their concerns are. But if we all sat down at the end of the day, everybody would realize that this is not really that big of a deal, and most people would actually be on my side if they understood what I was doing and why I was doing it.
Tripkovic: It is expected for the Supreme Court to rule in your favor. What do you think will be the implications of this ruling on your life and the lives of other public school teachers?
Kennedy: Well, I really never gave it much thought. If I win, it’s just what everybody’s right as an American is. Everybody has the same right. It doesn’t matter what faith you are or somebody of no faith. It makes absolutely no difference! Every single American has the exact same rights under the First Amendment. That’s the only thing I’m standing up for! My biggest concern was if I actually lost what that would mean and how much of an impact that would have on so many Americans to lose their First Amendment right. That was my biggest fear. Winning is just confirming that the First Amendment is alive and well.
Tripkovic: Critics and skeptics, such as a recent Sports Illustrated article, suggest that a favorable Supreme Court decision will lead to a further erosion of the separation between church and state. What is your response?
Kennedy: I think they need to understand what the Constitution is before they actually start speaking words. I don’t think it means what they think. The United States is built on a republic, the constitutional republic. We have democracy but if they actually just took a look at democracy, if you have the judges voting in my favor, well then, there you go, there’s democracy. The majority of the guys and gals sitting on the bench, these are elected officials and appointees from the government we got. If we don’t trust in our system, that’s a total collapse!
Let them think what they want to think. I’m a fighter! If you want to fight with me, especially like Sports Illustrated, let’s fight in a real fight where we step into an octagon. That’s what I’m used to, not throwing blows at each other over words saying democracy is dead and I am the cause of it and separation of church and state. That’s not even in the Constitution. I don’t understand those guys.
Stephanie Taub: Coach Kennedy is right. Our country was built on religious freedom. All he’s asking to do is to take a knee in prayer after a football game. Some of these criticisms from organizations like Sports Illustrated are a little bit overblown.
Kennedy: And by myself, by the way. Not just to say a prayer but to say a prayer by myself!
Tripkovic: After years, the end of your legal struggles is near. Where do you see yourself in the future? And how would you like to be remembered? This case will have serious implications. Having said that, you are sort of a historical figure. In 30 years from now, you will probably end up in school textbooks.
Kennedy: That is weird, especially for anybody who’s met me. Talk about the average Joe. The whole thought of this being a legacy that will be in textbooks, I can’t even think about that. The only thing I could think of, at the end of the day, I stood up for what I believed in, and I stood up for what was right. And I fought the good fight. Hopefully everybody will forget who I am, and they’ll just remember what the case was about and remember what their freedoms are.
Tripkovic: What’s your life plan after this Supreme Court ruling — perhaps explain how it differs if you win or lose?
Kennedy: If I win, just like, what I’ve been asking for from the very beginning, I expect to be back in Bremerton, Washington, and be able to have my First Amendment restored and everybody else’s amendment restored. Just being able to go be a football coach and being able to thank God after a game.
Tripkovic: Do you see yourself writing a memoir, a book of your life journey?
Kennedy: I wish you could see how bad I write. I don’t write well, and I’m not a big reader. I’m schooled — I went to graduate school and everything. I’ll leave that up to scholars and people who know that kind of stuff. If somebody wants to write something, great. If they don’t, cool. I don’t even know how to answer it, you know.
Tripkovic: How do you see the role of faith in sports with many college and pro athletes professing faith publicly? What does society need to know about how faith affects sports and athletes?
Kennedy: I really appreciate when people think about something besides themselves — if it’s the football team or a baseball team, it’s a teammate, it’s their coaches, if it’s God, if it’s Allah, if it’s the plants, the sun, the moon and stars — and it makes absolutely no difference. Just every athlete who is a real athlete knows that they’ve been blessed with these abilities and to be able to share that with people to entertain people. It is the most amazing thing. The best athletes are probably some of the most humble people when you get down to it. They know it’s not just themselves and their part is something bigger, whatever they want to call it. The biggest thing in sports is to look beyond what we are and give thanks to whoever got you there — if it’s God, if it’s your parents, if it’s a coach, your teammates, whatever. All of those things, that’s what plays into the perfect part of sports.
Tripkovic: What about athletes who don’t have faith or who are from other faiths than Christianity — Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.? How do you think coaches from Christian backgrounds can motivate and help those players? Do those players need to adapt to your Christian worldview?
Kennedy: It’s a great question. If you take a look at the principles of every faith, you pick anyone or even people that don’t have faith — you think about the golden rule or karma or anything, you do unto others as you’d like to have done them to you, and if you do bad stuff to people, it’s going to follow you.
The life lessons that you learn as athletes and the coaches out there, teaching these athletes — doesn’t matter what level — teaching them to understand that you give 100% all the time and it’s not about yourself. It’s about everybody else around you and excelling as hard as you can to make everybody around you great. That’s a coaching principal! That’s a life principle! You can apply it through Scriptures from any religion or from no religions. They’re all intertwined, and we should embrace everybody from every faith or somebody that has absolutely no faith. I think we’re all in agreement that the life lessons are universal.
Tripkovic: Do sports offer some lessons on religious freedom, religious tolerance and understanding that other parts of society can learn from? If so, what?
Kennedy: Everything is intertwined and exchangeable — you can’t have one without the other. You don’t want to remove faith from people, but you don’t want to force faith on people. People will find their own paths. My biggest thing is being able to just be the light out there, and however anybody wants to take it, my job is to lift everybody up around me and to make everybody better. And that’s what my job is as a coach, 100%, is to make the people around me better.
Tripkovic: Justice Kavanaugh, during oral arguments, seemed to make a distinction between huddling during a game to pray, when students might feel social pressure, versus when students are disbursing after a game. How do you interpret this distinction in light of the First Amendment? Where is the line between the freedom of coaches and the freedom of students to practice their faith in public schools?
Taub: Many of the questions that we heard the justices ask during oral argument were getting at that question — “Where is the line?” question. We know that Justice Kavanaugh asked a really interesting question. He asked about the school district. What about a coach who just gives the sign of the cross? Would that be permissible under the Constitution? And the school district lawyer said that it might be a violation of the Constitution. Even to just make that gesture is a very extreme position, and most everyone agrees that teachers don’t shed their rights, their constitutional rights, when they walk through the schoolhouse gates.
Teachers and coaches should live up to that promise that the Supreme Court gave in the late ’60s, that they don’t lose their rights when they go through the schoolhouse. Now the Supreme Court has the opportunity to really clarify. What does it mean for a teacher to have religious rights? Does that mean the school can control what they do virtually the entire time they’re on campus, or can they do something like making the sign of the cross, kneeling for a 15- or 30-second prayer, having a Bible on their desk to read between classes?
These sorts of things should be common sense but have come into question in recent years because there’s just this idea that school districts must scrub the campus of anything that even remotely touches on religion, which is not what the Constitution says. … School districts all the time overstep their bounds and infringe on the private religious rights of teachers and coaches.
Tripkovic: This case seems likely to be decided along ideological lines. How can the results of this case bring people together, if the coach wins?
Taub: I think that getting the opinion might clarify the facts of the case, and your readers can go to coachkennedyfacts.com to find out more about what happened and what this case stands for. We hope that people on both sides of the aisle can come together for this principle that the teachers have constitutional rights, and those rights should be respected.
Tripkovic: The court declined to take up the case in 2019. What changed?
Taub: The case was coming up on a preliminary posture. They sent it back down because they wanted more factual development for the case before taking it. Now we had that factual development. It was clear that the coach was fired because he could be seen doing something religious, and then the Supreme Court decided to take up the case.
Tripkovic: What will be the influence of this case on future rulings?
Taub: That’s a great question, and it will depend largely on how it’s written — it could be a narrow decision, or it could be a broad decision.