This past summer Coach Joseph Kennedy made national headlines when he won a seven-year legal battle that ended at the US Supreme Court. This battle resulted from Coach Kennedy’s commitment to say a short, private prayer at the end of each football game that he coached.
This week on Family Policy Matters, hear Part 1 of Coach Kennedy’s address at NC Family’s 2022 Charlotte Dinner, where he shares about his experience standing up for the right to pray in public.
After being made aware of Coach Kennedy’s prayers, the Bremerton School District began insisting that he stop. They started by telling him he could only pray if it didn’t interfere with his job duties. Then they said he couldn’t pray with the students. Finally, they told him that he couldn’t pray at all where people could see him. His response was, “And that’s where I just drew the line. I said I’m not giving up my faith; I’m not giving in.”
Coach Kennedy finishes his address saying, “This was not my victory and my fight. This was ours. Do you know how cool that is? God answers prayers. He’s very much alive. I mean if He could take this time out of His day to win something for some schmuck from Washington, imagine what we’re going to do as a collective whole. We won this fight. This wasn’t my fight, and we won. Thank you.”
JOHN RUSTIN: Today we bring you an excerpt from NC Family’s 2022 Charlotte Dinner, which was held on October 13th and featured Coach Joseph Kennedy. We hope you’ll enjoy part one of this two-part program.
On June 27th, the Supreme Court issued another opinion on another incredibly important case, which you probably didn’t hear about because Dobbs was just sucking up all of the oxygen and the media’s attention. Well, this particular case centered around a marine veteran who served as an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School varsity football team in Washington State.
Before he even coached his first game, Coach Joseph Kennedy made a commitment to God that he would give thanks at the conclusion of each game for what the players had accomplished and for the opportunity had to be involved in their lives through football.
Well, after several years with no incident, school officials at Bremerton High School suddenly disapproved of Coach Kennedy’s prayer practice, and they not only suspended him but later fired him claiming his private prayer at mid-field following football games was unconstitutional. Well, as any good marine would do in the face of an unwarranted attack, Coach Kennedy stood his ground and challenged the school district arguing that banning coaches from quietly praying just because they could be seen by the public is wrong and, in fact, violates the free speech and exercise clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
Well, seven years later after that action was filed and following a multitude of defeats in lower courts, Coach Kennedy finally had his day before our nation’s highest court. And this summer on June 27th, the United State Supreme Court vindicated Coach Joe Kennedy when it issued its opinion in the case of Kennedy versus Bremerton School District. Tonight, we are privileged to hear about this incredible warrior and about his incredible journey from the man himself. Please help me welcome Coach Joe Kennedy.
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: I’m Coach Joe Kennedy. I was one of those bad kids, you know those kind of kids that nobody wants their kids to hang out with. That was me. I was terrible. My parents couldn’t have kids, but like a good Catholic family, they wanted children so they adopted a couple kids. And then through the miracle of science or the miracle of God , whatever you want to call it, they started spitting out kids like left and right. And I think they had something like seven kids, and they didn’t really need us anymore. So I kind of was rebellious, and I took the wrong path. Now, you go, oh, my gosh, why would your parents ever turn their back on a kid? You should have seen me, how bad I was.
Well, during this time when I was such a terrible kid, I ran across this young girl. We were both nine years old, and my brother said, hey, there’s this beautiful girl that lives down the road. She just moved in. And I was like, well, let’s go check her out. I walked down there, and I walked up to the front step, and there’s this girl sitting there, and I walked up to her and I said hey. And she looked up, and you know those cheesey movies where everything goes into slow motion. She looks up, brushes the hair out of her eyes, and looks up at me with these big brown eyes, and I was like just standing there with my mouth open wide, not knowing what to say. And she goes can I help you? And I go, yeah, I want to marry you. So I proposed on our first day. She said you’re creepy and went in the house.
So me and my brother, we got in a fight over who was going to marry her, and I can honestly say I beat the tar out of him then, and then 31 years later I married her. So, yeah, I was always a fighter. I grew up fighting, and I didn’t know why. I was just an angry, angry kid. I went to group homes and foster homes, a boys’ home in Eastern Washington, and I was trying to find my place in the world. I didn’t really know anything about God, and when I went to this boys’ home, they were kind of paramilitary but a Christian place. It’s a place you go right before you go to juve. So there I am trying to figure out who I am, how do I fit in the world, and there were so many counselors there that were just awesome people that just sowed seeds and just light and the Bible into me every chance that they got. The minimum that I could stay there was six months, and I was there for two years because I’m a slow learner at those kinds of things.
But I decided I’ll give this God thing a try, and that’s what I did and it fit well. It was like a suit. I put on a God suit, and I’m surrounded by Christians. And I said, wow, this is really cool. I look good. And it’s really easy when you’re surrounded by fellow Christians to be a Christian. Well, all things don’t last forever, and I ended up moving back home and I went right back into what I was doing. And I needed to find some kind of outlet. Everybody in my life told me I would never amount to anything. I didn’t contribute to society. I was just one of those things that should be put away because I’m not serving any purpose, and that hit me had. I wanted to see what I was really made of. I wanted to prove everybody wrong, that I wasn’t just a loser.
So I joined the Marine Corps, and, hey, it’s a perfect fit for me. A guy who likes to fight, you fight non-stop. I learned simple little things like discipline. I don’t know how many people know about the Marine Corps, but they instill a little bit of discipline on the first day you’re there. And I ended up staying. I thought I was going to be there for just one enlistment, and it turned into two. And then I’m halfway there, and I decided I’m going to make a life of it.
Right when I was about to get out of the Marine Corps, I took all my marines, and I was up in Washington doing rifle range. And my son, who is 12, he came over and we went out to lunch, and I said, hey, what are you doing this weekend, you know. And he said, well, I’m actually going to go to Denise’s house to celebrate her birthday. And I was like, really, do you got her number? And he goes I think so, and he gave it to me. So I called her up, and lo and behold she’s just up the road. And I called her, and I was all nervous. And I said, hey, I’m down in Tacoma. Is there any way that we can meet up? And she said, yeah, well, I work 700 hours a week, but you could come by in the evening. And so I did, and as soon as I saw her it was just like that first day. Nothing changed at all, and I was just like, oh, my god, I love this girl.
So we ended up getting together, and we found out, hey, God is doing great things in her life. She grew up in a church, she knew God, and she had a great relationship with him. And here’s this heathen who wants to live with her. Well, God works in mysterious ways, and he has a sense of humor, so he paired us up. And then we got married, and it was insta-family. We have four and a half kids. We picked up a stray along the way, and we’ve been just living together and trying to make the best of it. Well, she went through a lot of things when she was a kid, you know, a lot of abuse, and her ex-husband was a terrible man. I ended up, you know, just trying to make everything work, and it wasn’t working. Things were way out of balance, and I had no way to reach her. So the great thing was she invited me to church every Sunday. I had every excuse. I did anything you possibly could to get out of going to church until the one day when our son said, well, if he doesn’t have to go, do I have to go? So I said, okay, I’m going to go.
I went and I sat defiant for six months or so. Well, as things went on, our marriage kind of got really rocky, and I didn’t know how to reach out to her. And, finally, I was up to my limit, and I was in church and they started playing one of those great church songs. And I don’t know what happened, but something hit me all of the sudden and it was like my chest broke open and I went running up to the altar. And I broke down, and I just started sobbing my eyes out and just saying, God, if you help me with our relationship, I will give you everything that I have for the rest of my days. And she saw that I actually broke down, and I was so serious about this relationship and being married that she came up, we had a good cry, and everything was perfect until I got called to coach football.
I don’t know anything about football. Xs and Os is not my thing, and it was funny when I went to the interview they were like why are we even looking at you? And I said, well, I checked out your team, and it’s obvious you guys need discipline, you need leadership, you need team building. You need all the intangible things, all of the things that those Xs and Os guys are just missing out on. I could take all of that, and we took a lot of kids in over the years, and I don’t know if anybody knows about coaching. You make about seven cents an hour, which isn’t really worth it, but taking these kids into your home and giving them a place that is safe to actually sleep and getting them to perform at their highest on a Friday night, that was the honor of my life.
On that Friday, they asked me if I would coach. I said, well, give me the weekend, you know, to think about it. I should probably talk to God and my family about this, and in the middle of the night, I was flipping through the channels, and there’s absolutely nothing good on 793 channels. And then this movie came on, “Facing the Giants,” and here I am talking to God all weekend going, man, am I supposed to do this? This movie comes on, and for the second time I fell to my knees. This one really hit me hard, but here was God coming through the TV — I mean reaching right through those Kendrick Brothers and just socks me in the gut. And I’m on the ground just bawling my eyes out, and I said, God — just like in the movie — I will give you the glory after every game. I hear you calling my name. A lot of people go through life and have absolutely no idea what their calling is. This is the first time I actually knew what my calling was, and I said I’m in. I’ll give you the glory after every game, win or lose right there on the battlefield. And that’s what I did.
So I’m sitting there, and I said I was going to do this. And I walk across the field, shake hands, and then I would go and I would just take a knee, something so simple as a 15-second prayer. I might as well have been tying my shoe. Nobody knew what we were doing, and I did this for eight years. We were in the middle of the eighth football season when this happened, and when it all came to, you would think that somebody really was upset. But it actually came from a complement, somebody that saw what we did on the football field and called the principal and said, hey, I just want to tell you that what your football program is doing is really awesome. And so, of course, with any kind of complement, you want to do an investigation. Right? That makes sense. Their lawyers got involved, and we thought we could all work it out, we really did. And these people have been my friends for almost a decade. The first time they said, hey, you can pray even when you’re on duty, as long as it doesn’t affect your job duties. No problem there. The second letter they gave me they said you just can’t pray with the kids, and I was like, well, that’s unfortunate but, hey, your school, your rules, no problem. Checking the box. The third one they gave me another letter, and they said you just can’t pray at all where people can see you. And that’s where I just drew the line. I said I’m not giving up my faith; I’m not giving in. Are you kidding me, in America, especially at a public school? They were like the taxpayer, and I’m like I’m the taxpayer — my kid — they all go to the school.
And to make it all better, guess who the HR director of the school district was? My wonderful wife. There’s been many days and nights that we had intense fellowship, and it was intense, it really was. It was the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to go through. So this wasn’t just something of some stubborn guy, and that’s what I kept fighting with. Is this me? Is this my pride? What is this? I really needed God to figure this out because it was putting a huge strain on our marriage, and the coolest thing happened. Here I am getting ready to sue my wife and the rest of the people in the Bremerton School District, and she’s pretty upset and I have no way of reaching out to her and trying to tell her, well, God’s calling me to do this. You know you hear about stories, well, God calls people to do all kinds of weird stuff. I’m that guy. He’s calling me to do this, and we just couldn’t get past that. I was at my limit. I was like I am hurting the one I love more than anything, and it got to the point where I was like I’m just leaving. And I was on my way out the door, and she’s bawling her eyes out on the bed. And my phone goes off, and I was like who in the heck is doing — I don’t know that number. It was the Kendrick Brothers. They made a video and said, well, first I stopped and I fell and I broke the banister going down our stairs. And my wife comes running out, and she was like are you okay, are you okay? And I handed her my phone, and so she looks at it, and she hits play and we sat there and just bawled our eyes out and we knew it was going to be okay.
God shows up exactly, exactly when we needed him to, not when we wanted him to, but when we needed him to. So this lawsuit was not something I took lightly. I wanted nothing more than to not sue my wife because that’s bad. Marital advice 101, don’t sue your spouse. The other thing is I just wanted to coach high school football. I don’t want this lawsuit. Are you kidding me? But God made that fighter when I was a kid. God was putting those puzzle pieces together, and I never even knew it until that moment when I could take a step back and look and it was like, wow, that guy knows what he’s doing. I mean God’s pretty cool. He’s got a sense of humor to sue your wife, but, hey, you know, I’m not God so I’m not going to argue with him too much.
So we went through the lawsuit. We lost at the District Court, the Appeals Court, the Supreme Court. They kicked it back. Went to the District Court, went to the Appeals Court, they kicked it around twice, and then back to the Supreme Court. So I’m 0-7 at this point. That’s not a winning record. That’s terrible you know. You’d fire a coach for that. Fire me for that record, not for praying and being thankful.
So we go to the Supreme Court, and let me tell you it is an answered prayer by every single one of you. All of our prayers were answered. This was not my victory and my fight. This was ours. Do you know how cool that is? God answers prayers. He’s very much alive. I mean if he could take this time out of his day to win something for some schmuck from Washington, imagine what we’re going to do as a collective whole. We won this fight. This wasn’t my fight, and we won. Thank you.
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