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I’m a football coach, but for more than five seasons, I’ve been sidelined.
And no, it wasn’t because I didn’t win enough games.
It was because the school district that hired me—Bremerton School District, just across the Puget Sound from Seattle—forced me to choose between my faith and my job.
Joe Kennedy coached high school football in Bremerton, Washington.
Before I coached my first game, in 2008, I made a commitment to God that I would give thanks after each game—win or lose—for the opportunity to be a football coach and for my players. I was inspired to do this after watching the movie “Facing the Giants.”
For seven years, after each game, I walked to the center of the field, knelt, and prayed a brief prayer of thanks.
This simple act of gratitude cost me the job I love.
It started not with a complaint, but with a compliment from a neighboring school administrator. My school district instructed me that I could pray as long as I was not leading my players in prayer.
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I was all too happy to comply with this directive and clarified that I would pray by myself. But then the school district issued a new policy, and it said I could not pray where others might see me.
They offered to allow me to pray only if it was in a place where nobody could see me. It made me feel as if my faith was something I should hide out of shame.
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Just hours before what would be my last game as coach, the school district gave me an ultimatum: If I prayed after that night’s game, they would suspend me. As a proudly retired U.S. Marine, something inside me stirred. I would have given my life defending the religious freedom of any American, and yet that very right was denied to me. That just seemed wrong and unjust.
I did pray on that chilly October night, leading to my suspension and termination. My only recourse at that point was to seek legal action to vindicate my rights of free speech and free exercise of my religious beliefs.
My case has been in the courts ever since. It has been nearly six years since that last game, and I continue to fight for a right I believe cannot be infringed upon by the government. Often, it feels like I am facing my own giants.
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I am just a football coach. I have neither the resources nor the ability to take on the government.
When First Liberty Institute took my case, they immediately sent a letter to the school district informing it of my constitutional right to pray publicly after a football game. I honestly believed that, once the district saw the letter, it would recognize its error and the issue would be quickly resolved.
But that’s not what happened; instead, the district doubled down and changed the rules. It doesn’t take a football coach to tell you that you cannot change the rules midgame.
With First Liberty’s help, I filed a lawsuit against Bremerton School District. We knew it would not be easy. My case started in the district court, then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
Although the Supreme Court decided not to hear my case at the time, in a relatively rare move, four of the Court’s justices—Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh—issued a statement explaining that my case was not ready to be heard because important factual questions remained unresolved. They then set out a game plan for how the case should be reviewed.
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I am not a lawyer, but to me it felt like the Court gave us a new set of downs.
Five years is a long time to be in court, and the question I am getting asked is, “Why keep fighting this? Why not move on?”
My answer is simple: quitting would violate everything I tried to teach my players.
That isn’t to say this has been an easy road. There are days when I want to give up and move on with my life. There are days when I don’t think I can keep fighting this fight. But that’s when I remember the hundreds of times I told my players not quit no matter the challenge!
I also think of the thousands of other public school coaches and teachers whose inalienable right to freely exercise their faith in public is at risk if the court decisions against me are allowed to stand.
I also remember the commitment I made to God, so with the help of my attorneys, I fight on.
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And I’ll keep fighting, all the way back to the Supreme Court if necessary. In time, I’m confident I will be able to return to the field, and that the First Amendment rights of coaches and teachers will be restored.
Until then, let’s play ball.
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