The public high school assistant football coach in Washington state whose contract wasn't renewed because the district disapproved of his postgame prayers and whose First Amendment case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he emerged victorious, has finally been given his old coaching job back.
It's been a long road for Coach Joe Kennedy, his family, and his supporters. In 2008, Kennedy began coaching football at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington, located west of Seattle, across Puget Sound. That year, Kennedy, a devout Christian, began a tradition of walking over to the 50-yard line, taking a knee, and praying by himself after each game. However, his personal prayer time soon attracted other participants, as players and fans began joining him.
But officials with Bremerton School District worried that the private group prayer conducted at a public school constituted an establishment of religion by the state. In 2015, they first suspended and then ultimately fired Kennedy after he refused to stop hosting the postgame prayer.
The following year, Kennedy sued the district for violating his First Amendment right to religious freedom. Though Kennedy did not see many victories in lower-level courts, he ultimately prevailed in the highest court in the land, when SCOTUS voted 6-3 last year to confirm that the district had violated his religious rights, so long as no student or player was ever pressured to participate in his prayer ritual.
"The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote on behalf of the majority.
Despite all of the legal and psychological turmoil imposed on him by the district, Kennedy still wanted his old job back. Now, he has it. On March 8, Kennedy was officially reinstated at Bremerton High School, though he said he probably won't return to campus until spring football commences in a few months.
Following his reinstatement, Kennedy expressed gratitude that the "long battle" was finally over and that he can now return to doing what he loves: coaching football.
"This is just so awesome," he said in a statement. "All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle."
Kennedy's legal team at First Liberty Institute likewise issued a statement: "We are thrilled that Bremerton and Coach Kennedy are back together and we hope they go undefeated."
In addition to being reinstated, Kennedy also agreed to settle with the district for $1,775,000 to cover legal fees. However, the school board must still approve that settlement before it can be paid. The board is expected to vote on approving the settlement on Thursday.
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