'I haven't stopped smiling once:' Joe Kennedy reacts to Supreme Court decision in prayer case

Andrew Binion
Kitsap Sun
Joe Kennedy, a former assistant football coach for Bremerton High who took his prayer case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, at Bremerton Memorial Stadium in March. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision on Monday that the district was wrong to try to stop Kennedy from praying at the 50-yard-line following football games.

Hours after the 6-3 ruling Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court that cleared the way for Joe Kennedy to resume coaching — and praying — at Bremerton High School, Kennedy said the decision hasn’t set in.

“I’m still trying to process it,” Kennedy told the Kitsap Sun. “I haven’t stopped smiling once and it feels like my whole soul is vibrating. It’s awesome, it hasn’t settled in, but it’s awesome.”

Kennedy, a devout Christian, moved to Florida to be closer to family but said Monday he is ready to start back with the team immediately. Bremerton's football program is in the middle of participating in summer practices. The Knights will head to team camp at Eastern Oregon University on July 17-21. Preseason fall practices are scheduled for mid-August.

Past coverage:Coach Kennedy gets day in the Supreme Court, drawing national floodlight to local dispute over school prayer

In a statement Monday afternoon directly from the district, spokeswoman Karen Bevers wrote that officials will comply with the ruling as the district also ensures employees "don’t coerce or pressure students to pray or take part in religious exercises contrary to the students’ and their families’ faith."

Bevers wrote the district cannot confirm at this time whether Kennedy will coach in the fall. 

The opinion that put an end to a conflict that started in 2015 was greeted as both a victory and defeat for religious freedom, with an attorney for Kennedy saying it showed the rights of school employees don’t stop at the schoolhouse step and an attorney for the district saying it placed the rights of some Christians above others.

Kennedy was moved to begin coaching and thanking God after watching the 2006 sports drama film “Facing the Giants” about a Christian high school football coach. At first, he said his post-game prayers were personal and private, but over time, they began attracting attention from players who wanted to join. Later, school officials took notice and ordered Kennedy to stop performing the prayers in front of students and offered him out-of-the-way accommodations, which he rejected.

At the end of the season, his contract was not renewed. 

More:Joe Kennedy, former Bremerton football coach, says personal history led to defying prayer ban

“This decision represents the greatest loss of religious freedom in our country in generations,” Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said in a statement. “This court focused only on the demands of far-right Christian extremists, robbing everyone else of their religious freedom. It ignored the religious freedom of students and families.”

Kennedy blamed the conflict on attorneys for the district but said he held no grudge against the district.

“I consider everybody at Bremerton as still my friends,” Kennedy said. “There are no hurt feelings on my part; this is just something that needed to be done, and I look forward to seeing all my friends and family.”

Though students joined Kennedy's prayers after games, he said he originally prayed alone and that would be his practice in the future. 

When pressed on what he would do if students wanted to join him, Kennedy said communication channels were strong among players and coaches, and though students have the right to express their faiths, he would explain to the team that it was a personal matter.

“I won’t chase them off, but I won’t invite them,” Kennedy said. “This is just a moment between me and God.”

Americans United Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who argued the case for the district in front of justices, said attorneys are still reviewing the decision.

However, Katskee said that if students attempted to join Kennedy in prayer he would still have to respect and protect their rights and it would be difficult to determine if players joined voluntarily or felt the need to “go along to get along.”

“We certainly hope this can be put to bed with a reasonable system, a reasonable religious accommodation for Kennedy. That’s what the district tried to do all along. He demanded something else,” Katskee said during a conference call with reporters. “If he’s prepared to be reasonable now that would change things.”

Following the ruling Monday morning, an unsigned statement from the district issued by its attorneys said the district's priorities have always been protecting the rights and safety of students.

“That’s why, when we learned that a district employee was leading students in prayer, we followed the law and acted to protect the religious freedom of all students and their families,” the statement said. “We look forward to moving past the distraction of this 7-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible.”

In the opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch and joined by justices appointed by Republican presidents, the majority dismissed concerns that the prayers could be “coercive” toward students.

“A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition in which learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities has always been ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,’” the majority found, quoting an earlier opinion.

Gorsuch also wrote that "Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination." 

In a dissent signed by the three justices appointed by Democratic presidents, the justice accused the majority of ignoring the facts of the case and calling into question decades of court decisions.

“The court rejects longstanding concerns surrounding government endorsement of religion and replaces the standard for reviewing such questions with a new ‘history and tradition’ test,” the dissent read, written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“The Constitution should protect public school students from being coerced into religious activity,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a statement. “The court’s decision here does the opposite: it ignores the real-life pressure and coercion that students will feel when school officials stage public religious observances in class or at school events.”

In a statement from First Liberty Institute, the group representing Kennedy, officials claimed it was a victory not only for Kennedy but for all Americans.

“Our Constitution protects the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of getting fired,” said Kelly Shackelford, president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty, in a statement. “We are grateful that the Supreme Court recognized what the Constitution and law have always said – American’s (sic) are free to live out their faith in public."