Teachers and coaches play an essential role in our country. Yet, their intangible influence is in danger of being lost if we fail to protect their civil rights.
Coaches like Joe Kennedy should be celebrated for their commitment to building football players into men. Instead, Bremerton School District fired him for praying by himself after his games.
Kennedy’s early years were filled with fighting and foster care. His adoptive parents once told him that the decision to adopt him was the worst decision they had ever made. Still, it was those very experiences—combined with a career in the U.S. Marine Corps—that made him a great coach.
Calling plays and determining playing time was left to the head coach. Kennedy had the job of picking a kid up when he was down on himself for a bad play, making sure his players had cleats when he couldn’t afford them, getting his players food, and even making sure his homeless players had a dry place to sleep at night.
He never envisioned himself as a coach, but when the district’s athletic director pressed him to consider coaching football, Kennedy agreed to take the weekend to think about it.
Joe Kennedy coached high school football in Bremerton, Washington.
That weekend, he stumbled across a football movie—”Facing the Giants”—on TV. The movie moved him deeply. He knew it was the answer from God he needed. Like the coach in that movie, he promised that, after the game was over, he would drop to a knee on the field of battle in a quick, quiet moment of prayer.
Eventually, and through no effort on his part, players began to join him. His personal prayer evolved into postgame motivational talks infused with his faith. When an opposing coach complimented the school district, school officials told him that his prayers and religious speeches with students had to stop. He stopped immediately, simply desiring to return to his original practice of quickly praying by himself after the game.
School attorneys informed him, however, that he could not return to his practice of praying by himself at the 50-yard line. Instead, they suggested that he walk across the field, up the stairs, across a practice field, into the main school building, down the hall, and into the janitor’s office in order to pray. Not only was that impractical, it would treat his prayer as something dirty that needed to be hidden.
The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
Now, Coach Kennedy is at the U.S. Supreme Court and the school’s new attorneys want to change the facts. They now argue that Coach Kennedy wants to coerce kids into praying with him, but that directly contradicts what they said in 2015: “There is indeed no evidence that students have been directly coerced to pray with Kennedy.”
While Bremerton’s lawyers now suggest Bremerton School District punished Coach Kennedy for praying with students, in 2015 school officials admitted that his suspension was because, while his players were singing the school fight song with the fans, he “kneeled on the field and prayed following the game.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco concluded that it would violate the Constitution if students could see coaches (or teachers) like Kennedy engaged in private, religious activity. That’s a frightful standard certain to drive good teachers and coaches like Kennedy out of the profession nationwide.
FILE – In this April 23, 2021, file photo members of the Supreme Court pose for a group photo at the Supreme Court in Washington. Seated from left are Associate Justice Samuel Alito, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer and Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Standing from left are Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Associate Justice Elena Kagan, Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch and Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett.
The Supreme Court has a chance, on April 25, to change all that. Unless the Justices intervene, teachers who can be seen praying over their lunch in the cafeteria may be subject to termination. If a teacher wears a crucifix, yarmulke, or hijab on campus, a school district may dismiss the teacher or coach for what Bremerton School District labelled, “demonstrative religious activity.”
That’s not the American brand of freedom Kennedy fought in the Marine Corps to protect. Ours is a nation that respects the private expression of religion, welcoming that faith as a part of who our neighbors are.
No one should be forced to choose between their faith and the job they love.
The nation needs good coaches and teachers. We hope the Supreme Court grants Kennedy the only thing he’s ever asked for: to be a football coach again and allowed to pray alone at the 50-yard line at the end of the game.
Once, some players asked Coach Kennedy if they were allowed to pray after their game. He said “it’s a free country.” Let’s hope that’s still true.
Kelly Shackelford is president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.