Update: On Wednesday, Sept. 6, Joseph Kennedy quit his part-time job at Bremerton High School, having been present for only one game.
The part-time assistant high school football coach who took his desire to pray at the 50-yard-line after games all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court was back on the field in Bremerton, Wash., last Friday night for the first time in eight years.
Joseph Kennedy became a national celebrity elevated by evangelical Christians as a symbol of their fight to be given privileges they are not always willing to grant people of other faiths. His case was handled by First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based evangelical advocacy law firm.
The case highlighted the divergent views of the meaning of the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses at the heart of the nation’s culture wars. Those who support Kennedy’s stance elevate the Free Exercise Clause over the No Establishment Clause, while traditional religious liberty advocates have sought to balance the two.
In celebration of Kennedy’s return to the field, First Liberty publicized a “First Freedom Challenge” where other Christians were asked to commit to “take a knee in prayer with Coach Kennedy on September 1.”
Ironically, Kennedy’s evangelical supporters largely are known for opposing NFL players like Collin Kaepernick who similarly took a knee during the National Anthem as a means of drawing attention to racial inequality.
According to various media reports, Kennedy’s appearance at Friday night’s game — for which a media tent was set up — appeared largely symbolic.
The Kitsap Sun reported: “During Friday’s game, Kennedy spent much of the time distancing himself from players and other coaches. When asked about the reason why, the coach chose his words carefully and said he was doing his job as he was instructed to do.”
It was not clear whether Kennedy — who now lives in Florida — will even stay for the entire football season.
Kennedy told Fox News he is weighing the possibility of entering full-time ministry or serving as a missionary. He has shown up at events for conservative political candidates Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis.
Asked what his plans are, Kennedy told the Kitsap Sun: “That’s what I’m leaving up to God. We haven’t even talked about it. Tonight was the milestone and where we wanted to get to. We fought eight years. What we asked for from the Supreme Court and all the courts was just to be able to be a coach and be able to pray after a football game. Both of those were accomplished and I’ve gotten what I asked for. Anything beyond that is just a plus and we’re going to let God direct us and our family direct us.”
“People are going to freak out that I’m bringing God back into public schools.”
The Associated Press said Kennedy expression anxiety about his return: “Knowing that everybody’s expecting me to go do this kind of gives me a lot of angst in my stomach. People are going to freak out that I’m bringing God back into public schools.”
The AP said two days before the game, Kennedy was seen riding around town on a borrowed bicycle before taking the field for an afternoon practice wearing a sleeveless shirt with the word “essential” on the front where the letter “T” resembled a cross.
Unlike his actions eight years ago that caused his contract with the Bremerton School District not to be renewed, Kennedy this time did not gather players or fans with him on the field. He knelt alone — the action that was portrayed by the Supreme Court as allowable but which the school district said was not what he had been doing before.
The Seattle Times reported: “By himself, he knelt at the center of the 50-yard line for a quick prayer, which was followed by some scattered applause from the stands.”
Kennedy told the Times: “Tonight was the milestone of where we wanted to get to for eight years. What we asked for from the Supreme Court and all the courts was just to be able to be a coach and to be able to pray after a football game. Both of those were accomplished. I’ve gotten what I’ve asked for. Anything beyond that is just a plus.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Kennedy June 27, 2022, became another lightning rod in an escalated battle between conservative Christians and those with more traditional understandings of the First Amendment and religious liberty. He had lost at all levels of lower courts but finally found favor with the newly installed Supreme Court conservative majority.
Bremerton Schools issued a statement about Kennedy’s return: “The Bremerton School 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. Policy 5281P outlines how and when coaches and other supervisors may engage in personal conduct (such as prayer) while on duty. The district remains steadfast in its commitment to respecting the rights and religious freedom of students, families and school staff, and to keeping football games, and all school events, safe for the students we serve. We look 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.”
Bremerton High School beat the visiting Mount Douglas Secondary School 27-12 in the season opener.
At the Supreme Court: The First Amendment on the 50-yard line | Opinion by Charles Haynes