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 2 of Coach Kennedy’s address at NC Family’s 2022 Charlotte Dinner, where he shares more about his experience standing up for the right to pray in public.
The Kennedy family has had a lot of ups and downs these last seven years, but in the midst of the discouragement, they received so much encouragement from people across the country. Coach Kennedy shares that people would reach out on social media or send them cards, and the First Liberty Institute fought their legal battle alongside them.
The Kennedy’s biggest encouragement, though, came with the US Supreme Court’s decision. Between their media blitz and celebration, Coach Kennedy shares that, “We got to tell the whole entire nation that this was a victory for every American, and that was the awesome thing about it.” He ends by sharing the exciting news that he is in negotiations with the Bremerton School District to finalize the details of his rehiring, including the protection of his constitutional right to prayer.
JOHN RUSTIN: Today we bring you Part 2 of the keynote address from NC Family’s 2022 Charlotte Dinner featuring Coach Joseph Kennedy. We hope you enjoy.
Well, just three days later 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 he had to be involved in their lives through football.
Well, after several years with no incident, I think seven years, in fact, with no incident school officials ta 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, or any attack for that matter, 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 free 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 States 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.
I do want to just, as we get started with this, I know that it’s amazing to hear all that you went through, all of the challenges, all of the barriers that were put in your way, both personally, your marriage — Denise, thank you for being here and for validating his story. Actually, I heard Coach Kennedy speak a couple of months ago at one of our national conferences, and I think you said pretty much the same stuff. Denise was not there so he didn’t embellish things tremendously, maybe a few things, but not — but, gosh, as we sit here and hear your story, I mean and thank you for sharing about your upbringing and sort of the challenges and redemption that he offered to you, as he offers to each one of us. That’s incredible, but then to have made that commitment and then to be challenged with this kind of circumstance that brought things very much to home but then as you mentioned you lost at the district court and then lost again and lost again and had an 0 and 7 record. As a football coach, man, that is tough to deal with, and as a football coach you would be sitting there going what in the world am I doing? You know, gosh, you must have been –
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: Oh, I was — I got very frustrated, and thank God that, no lie, all of the people that have written to us. We’ve gotten cards from everybody around — even around the world. So prayers have been felt and heard. People just pop up on your internet, like Facebook and Instagram and everything else, and it was like way to go. It’s been felt, and now I get to come to these events and hang out with cool people.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s awesome. Well, we know that you didn’t do this all by yourself. I mean there were prayers, but there was also one particular organization that represented you in court. Talk about First Liberty Institute and sort of how in the world did that come about? How did they hear about your situation and then engage you and kind of went on this seven-year journey with you?
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: So First Liberty is — the only thing that they do is defend religious liberty, that is it. You’ve got ADF and a whole bunch of other groups that defend all the freedoms, but they are the biggest in just religious liberty and that’s all that they do. And thank God that it was pro bono because that bill’s about $10 million.
JOHN RUSTIN: Wow.
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: I don’t know how the average person could ever survive. If they didn’t come and you guys didn’t support me and then — didn’t support me, I would have gotten rolled right over. I mean $10 million. It was actually a God thing that hooked us up, and they said let me hear your story. They were very interested, and they said that they would take it. And they fought beside me for the past seven years.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yeah, that’s amazing. That’s amazing. Well, we are fortunate to have groups like First Liberty and Alliance Defending Freedom and other Christian legal engagement firms representing a lot of interest, and we work very closely with a number of these organizations in partnership because they have a lot of expertise. And they’ve been battle-tested and often, especially on religious liberty cases, have a really great success rate because just like in your situation it was just completely unfounded what happened. And the school system — no offense, Denise — was just wrong. I actually have a copy of the opinion right here.
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: You’re going to read every line of it, right?
JOHN RUSTIN: Not every line, but only about half of it and it’s like 70-something pages long. No, I did mark a couple of things. As I read this the other night, just as a refresher, I read these couple of sentences and was like, wow, this is incredible. Think of the United States Supreme Court writing this about you, “Mr. Kennedy further felt pressured to abandon his practice of saying his own quiet, on-field, post-game prayer.” I’ll leave out the, “See id., at 172,” those cross references. Yes. “Driving home after a game, however, Mr. Kennedy felt upset that he had ‘broken [his] commitment to God’ by not offering his own prayer, so he turned his car around and returned to the field. By that point, everyone had left the stadium, and he walked to the 50-yard line and knelt to say a brief prayer of thanks.” That’s the United States Supreme Court talking about what this man here did, and with all of the opposition, all of the hurdles, all of the barriers that he’s talked about, all of the losses, but he was compelled to stand firm for his commitment that he made to God. And that is just absolutely inspiring to me, and I know it is to you as well.
So how did you feel when you read this decision, and what were the thoughts and feelings kind of going through your brain and your heart?
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: Well, you know, like you said Dobbs hit the week before. We thought our case would drop before then and we were kind of praying it would so they wouldn’t get all jumbled. We had the Second Amendment that won, we had Dobbs, and then mine fell within – it’s just week, week, week. And that’s three awesome weeks, and I was sitting there with my lawyers and we’re all watching the screen and they’re hitting refresh like crazy. And it was the first one and the only one that popped up on that day, and they go there it is. I go there what is? I know what it is, but my brain’s fried. What is it? Tell me. Shh, we’re reading. You know lawyers they — I’m like tell me what it — somebody please tell me what it says. And they said we won. And I’m like we did? 6-3, woohoo. Then they — I didn’t even have a chance to celebrate. I didn’t celebrate until a week later because we did that big media blitz, and we were on the air within an hour. We totally derailed CNN. If you haven’t seen that video, watch it. It’s hilarious. And we got to tell the whole entire nation that this was a victory for every American, and that was the awesome thing about it.
JOHN RUSTIN: That’s awesome. Thank you. Questions? Yes, sir?
MALE VOICE: Are you coaching, or what’s the status of your employment?
JOHN RUSTIN: Good question.
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: Oh, yeah. So, yeah — no, I am not coaching yet. As everybody knows, the football season is partway through, and the last thing I wanted to do is disrupt football in the middle of the season. It was a big enough disruption back in 2015 when this all started. I didn’t want to do a crash landing in the middle. Talk about wedding crashers. This would have been terrible right in the middle. Can you imagine a coach and a coaching staff and these kids who have no idea who I am, being thrown right into the middle of it. So I said let’s do it right. Let’s do it in 2023, and the school has been dragging its feet this whole entire time. And, yeah, she doesn’t work for the school district anymore. It’s not her office anymore because she would never drag her feet. She would have fired me a long time ago. I just found out today, actually, as soon as I got off the plane I got an email. And the school district for the first time is going to — we’re going to talk on this coming Wednesday and negotiate the terms of my rehirement. So you are the first people to hear that. I haven’t shared that with anybody yet.
JOHN RUSTIN: So I want to read the conclusion of the opinion for you and just keep in mind — talk about discouragement. It would have been so easy for Coach Kennedy to stop any time along the way. To just say, God, you know, I’m done with this.
COACH JOSEPH KENNEDY: Peace out.
JOHN RUSTIN: Yep. And had every reason to walk away, but he didn’t. And so listen to the conclusion that our Supreme Court wrote, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic. Whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head, here 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. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his First Amendment claims. The judgment of the court of appeals is reversed.”
We’re excited to let you know that in the weeks following Coach Kennedy’s keynote address at NC Family’s Charlotte dinner, it was announced that the Bremerton School District will be reinstating Joe Kennedy as an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School on or before March 15th, 2023. Although negotiations regarding the settlement are still underway, Coach Kennedy’s constitutional right to prayer is expected to be fully upheld and protected. In a celebratory Facebook post, Coach Kennedy shared the following, “I’m excited to announce things are moving ahead with being reinstated. Still some details to be worked out, but we are giving glory to God today for this one. I’m doing a virtual 50-yard line prayer right now.” Once again, we commend and thank Coach Joe Kennedy for his commitment and perseverance through this seven-year legal journey. We also thank God for a favorable outcome in this very important case as it reaffirms our constitutional right to practice our faith not only at home in private but also in the public square.
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