- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 11, 2022

Joseph Kennedy fought a seven-year legal battle to get his high school football coaching job back after being fired for praying on the 50-yard line, but as students return to the classroom this month for a new school year, he’s yet to return to the field.

A lawyer for Mr. Kennedy told The Washington Times they will be working with the Bremerton School District in Washington state to get the coach reinstated following his victory at the Supreme Court in June.

The court paperwork following the high court’s decision and logistical issues, like his coaching position having been filled while the litigation unfolded in the courts, play a role in negotiations between the coach and the district.

“Whether he gets a start this fall season or not, I think that remains to be seen, but eventually he will have his job back,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for First Liberty Institute, who represents Mr. Kennedy. “I don’t know if it will be a month from now or months from now.”

The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June for the public high school coach, who was fired after he prayed at the 50-yard line immediately after games. The court’s conservative majority said the government can’t punish someone for personal, private religious expression.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch said Mr. Kennedy, who coached at a school in Bremerton, proved his postgame prayer was private and no students were compelled to join him.

The school district had ousted him, saying his role as an employee and the public setting drifted too far into state sponsorship of religion, making some students and parents uncomfortable.

Justice Gorsuch said that wasn’t a good enough reason to trample Mr. Kennedy‘s First Amendment rights.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” he wrote for the majority.

A spokesperson from the district told The Times it is working to get Mr. Kennedy his assistant coaching job back.

“In compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision, the Bremerton School District is working to facilitate Mr. Kennedy‘s return as an assistant football coach. Meanwhile, the District is also working to update our procedures to ensure that we satisfy our obligations to protect the religious freedom of our students and their families as well as all District employees. The case is now back in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, where the judge will decide how to implement the Supreme Court’s decision and determine reasonable attorney fees,” a statement from the district read.

Mr. Kennedy said he made a vow to God to pray for his students after each football game, starting in 2008.

He initially prayed alone, but he said some students took notice and asked whether they could join. He began to deliver motivational speeches with prayer, though he said he never coerced anyone to participate.

In 2015, his superintendent told him to stop the practice, saying he was violating the district’s religious activities policy.

After the admonishment, Mr. Kennedy began to conduct short, solo prayers at the end of games while the players were supposed to be doing something else. The school said that still was out of bounds, and Mr. Kennedy was suspended.

Mr. Kennedy had moved to Florida after being fired, but has said he would return to Bremerton, a town near Seattle, should he win his case.

“Thank God and thank everybody that supported me, and I found out that I’m not insane. It’s absolutely true of all the facts of the case, and it just feels good to know that the First Amendment is alive and well,” he said after his high court win.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

• Alex Swoyer can be reached at aswoyer@washingtontimes.com.

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