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Former Bremerton football coach who lost job for postgame prayers takes case to Supreme Court

Joe Kennedy’s legal battle with the Bremerton School District is in its fourth quarter.

After the Supreme Court declined to hear his case in 2019, the highest court in the land will do just that on Monday.

Kennedy sparked a nationwide controversy after he lost his job for conducting routine, post-game prayers after high school football games. He was an assistant coach for the Bremerton High School football team. He tells KIRO 7 he started praying alone after games around 2008, until some of his players asked him what he was doing.

“My guys said, ‘What are you doing out there, coach?’ And I said, ‘I was just giving thanks for what you guys just did.’ They said, ‘Hey can we join you?’ And I was like, ‘It’s a free country you can do whatever you want to do,’” Kennedy said on Sunday.

The prayers continued until 2015, when court records show an “opposing team’s coach told BHS principal John Polm that Kennedy had asked his team to join him in prayer on the field. He also noted that ‘he thought it was pretty cool how (BSD) would allow’ Kennedy’s religious activity.”

“After learning of the incident, Athletic Director Barton spoke with Kennedy and expressed disapproval when Kennedy conducted a prayer on the field,” the court documents state. It also states, “In response, Kennedy posted on Facebook, ‘I think I just might have been fired for praying.’ Shortly thereafter, BSD ‘was flooded with thousands of emails, letters, and phone calls from around the country’ regarding the conflict over Kennedy’s prayer, ‘many of which were hateful and threatening.’”

In September 2015, Bremerton School District Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote a letter to Kennedy, stating, “Schools and their employees, while performing their job duties, must remain neutral - allowing non-disruptive student religious activity, while neither endorsing nor discouraging it… I am sincerely committed to honoring your rights and continuing your outstanding contributions to the BHS football program, while also ensuring that the District is not exposed to liability because we have inadvertently violated the rights of students or other community members.”

Kennedy continued kneeling and praying after games, but said he did it alone. He also said he told his players to not join him.

A judge would later rule that Kennedy “was not engaging in private prayer, but was instead engaging in public speech of an overtly religious nature while performing his job duties. BSD tried to reach an accommodation for Kennedy, but that was spurned by his insisting that he be allowed to pray immediately after the conclusion of each game, likely surrounded by students who felt pressured to join him.”

One parent also said a player felt “compelled to participate” in the postgame prayers because “he felt like he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t,” according to court documents.

Kennedy claims he never had any role in deciding playing time for varsity players, and said it was up to the head coach. Kennedy, a former assistant coach, was also the head coach of Bremerton High School’s JV football team.

“As a JV coach, I made the lineups. I made the starters. I made sure everyone one of my players played in the game and had just about equal time. It’s hard to balance the entire JV (team),” Kennedy said on Sunday.

In November 2015, the Bremerton School District Athletic Director recommended Kennedy not be rehired, stating Kennedy failed to follow district policy, demonstrated a lack of cooperation with the administration, contributed to negative relations (between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the district), and failed to supervise student-athletes after games “due to his interactions with media and community.”

It was a recommendation the district never had to follow because Kennedy never reapplied. He said he never had to in his eight years of coaching, claiming he and other coaches were rolled over every year. He also explained his decision further.

“I knew the HR director because I’ve been married to her for 15-16 years now. So I know what a death sentence is when it says ‘do not rehire,’” Kennedy said. “We never reapplied. Why would we have to reapply when we were rolled over for eight years?”

Jeremy Dys, an attorney representing Kennedy in his Supreme Court case, said, “If your annual evaluation says ‘do not rehire’ at the end of it, are you going to reapply to that position?”

In August 2016, Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the Bremerton School district at the federal district court in Tacoma. He argued the district violated his constitutional rights to free speech.

A judge denied Kennedy’s motion, writing in conclusion, “While public schools do not have unfettered discretion to restrict an employee’s religious speech, they do have the ability to prevent a coach from praying at the center of the football field immediately after games.

Kennedy appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with the district court’s decision.

In 2019, Kennedy tried taking his case to the Supreme Court. It declined to hear his case at the time.

On April 25, 2022, the Supreme Court will hear Kennedy’s case. Dys said Kennedy’s goals haven’t changed since 2016.

“We just want coach to be a football coach again, and have the ability to go to the 50-yard-line after those games by himself and take a knee in prayer,” Dys said. “(This) sends a message to every student, every participant, (and) everybody who’s out there from the public that prayer’s something you’ve got to hide from public view, and it’s dirty and bad.”

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected in late June.