The football coach whose prayers led to a major Supreme Court case says he believes his story and legal case have opened the door to more religious freedom in the United States than has been seen in decades.
Joe Kennedy, the assistant coach at Bremerton (Wash.) High School, was back on the field last Friday for the first time in eight years after getting his old job back. After his team won, he walked to midfield, by himself, and knelt in prayer – the very action that caused the school to dismiss him back in 2015. This time, though, Kennedy’s action was protected by the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that ruled the school had violated his free speech and religious liberty rights under the U.S. Constitution.
“I just took that moment and just thanked God for everything,” Kennedy told Christian Headlines in an interview.
He said he was anxious leading up to the game – not wanting the spotlight – and was glad the crowd focused on football after the opening kickoff.
“I think everybody forgot about me, which was a blessing,” he said.
But Kennedy does want people of faith to realize the significance of the Supreme Court decision.
Justice Neil Gorsuch, writing for the court, ruled the school had discriminated against Kennedy. The First Amendment protects “not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly” but also “the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through ‘the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts,'” Gorsuch wrote. The majority opinion also officially overturned the Lemon Test, which had been used since 1971 to determine the constitutionality of a law that deals with religion. Often, courts used the Lemon Test to restrict religious freedom.
Kennedy said he only wanted to pray – not change America. Both, though, happened, he noted.
“It was pretty simple for me: It was just to be able to be a coach and to pray after a football game. That’s the only two things that I asked for,” Kennedy told Christian Headlines. “Little did I know that God was going to do some incredible things with it.”
The case took “on a whole new meaning,” he said.
“And to me, it’s simply put: We got God back into our public schools and into the public square. And it’s perfectly legal,” he said.
The Supreme Court cleared up the “misconception” about the “separation of church and state,” he said.
“The Supreme Court justices made it very clear that the First Amendment, the freedom of speech, and the freedom of religion, those work together – they’re not opposing forces,” he said. “And that just frees up every American to be able to worship in the way that they see fit. And they don’t have to hide who they are and their faith because they have a job for a government entity.”
The U.S., he said, has “a lot more religious freedom now than we have in the past 50 years.”
Asked why he chose to continue the legal fight for eight years, Kennedy said it’s “the way that God made me.” His time as a Marine, he said, added to that doggedness. He said he found courage in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
“Most people agreed with me,” Kennedy said. “There was so many millions of Americans that were praying for me, supporting us and my family. … It was a fight that needed to be done and standing up for the First Amendment is absolutely worth fighting for.”
In October, Kennedy is releasing a new book, Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story. A movie about his life is also in production.
Photo courtesy: ©Salem Books, used with permission.
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.
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