SEATTLE (BP) – A high school football coach in Washington state has resigned following his recent return to coaching after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled his on-field prayers were protected by the Constitution.
Joe Kennedy, former assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in Seattle, resigned on Wednesday (Sept. 6) after returning to field for the first time in almost eight years. His post-game prayers, sometimes accompanied by students, drew national attention, and led to Kennedy’s being placed on leave by the school district, which later decline to renew his contract.
After a lengthy legal battle in which he lost his case at every ascending level, the Supreme Court ruled in his favor with a 6-3 decision last year. The 54-year-old Kennedy now cites several reasons for stepping away from coaching, including taking care of an aging family member out of state.
“I believe I can best continue to advocate for constitutional freedom and religious liberty by working from outside the school system so that is what I will do,” Kennedy said in a statement released on his website.
“I will continue to work to help people understand and embrace the historic ruling at the heart of our case. As a result of our case, we all have more freedom, not less. That should be celebrated and not disrespected.”
Hannah Daniel, policy manager for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), said the effect these extended court have on the people involved cannot be forgotten.
“Even when an individual ultimately prevails in their case, it cannot erase the toll that years of litigation takes on both that person and their family,” Daniel said in a statement to BP.
“Even as we celebrate the recent judicial victories for religious liberty, we cannot ignore the real costs paid by these plaintiffs to reach justice.”
Kennedy’s legal saga began in 2015, but his practice of post-game prayer began before that. He began coaching at Bremerton in 2008 and would pray by himself at the 50-yard line at the end of games.
Some students later began joining him, and he eventually started leading short devotional talks along with the group prayers. In 2015, the school district learned what he was doing and asked him to stop due to concerns about potential lawsuits.
Kennedy stopped praying with students in the locker room and on the field, but continued his original post-game practice of kneeling and praying by himself. The school district again asked him to stop this practice, but he continued.
The school’s varsity head coach later recommended Kennedy not be rehired, and his contract was not renewed by the district.
After the Supreme Court ruling in his favor was handed down last year, Kennedy, who now lives in Florida with his wife, picked back up his practice of praying after Bremerton’s 27-12 victory on Sept. 1.
He reportedly jogged to midfield for his customary post-game prayer to scattered applause from a modest crowd at the stadium, but was not joined by any students.
Kennedy has said he felt obligated to return to his coaching position, which pays very little, even though it has been nearly eight years since he held the job.
He told The Associated Press about the feeling of anxiety he experienced being back after the long ordeal.
“Knowing that everybody’s expecting me to go do this kind of gives me a lot of angst in my stomach,” Kennedy said. “People are going to freak out that I’m bringing God back into public schools.”
“So many people are asking, ‘What’s next?’ And I have no idea,” Kennedy said. “Do I stay for the season? Do I stay for a couple of games? Is this the only game? We don’t know.”
Kennedy would eventually decide to announce his resignation via the statement released Wednesday.
Kennedy’s is just one example of many recent lengthy religious liberty cases which end up deeply affecting the lives of the plaintiffs involved.
Another such case is that of Colorado cake designer Jack Phillips, whose ongoing legal battles over refusing service first for a homosexual wedding and later a transgender celebration go back more than a decade.