Free to Believe

Joe Kennedy

Bremerton High School: Bremerton, Washington

Since 2008, Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy has had a simple tradition. At the end of each game, he walks to the 50-yard line, takes a knee, and says a brief prayer of thanksgiving.

For seven years, the unassuming custom was enthusiastically welcomed by players from both teams, who would often join Coach Kennedy at midfield unprompted. As local columnist Matt Calkins put it, “The midfield meeting allowed players from both teams to enjoy a moment of community after four quarters of carnage.” The tradition started after Kennedy saw the movie Facing the Giants in 2008, which stirred a calling in him to “to try and make a difference” in the lives of his players. “I made a commitment to pray for them,” he says. “So after the games, I am just thanking God for putting these incredible young men in my life, and for blessing me with this opportunity.”

But in September 2015, Kennedy received notification from District Superintendent Aaron Leavell informing him that he must stop his post-game tradition because it was religious in nature. “Your talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer,” he wrote. “They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member.”

Undeterred, Coach Kennedy is now being legally represented by Liberty Institute, who is prepared to defend his rights in court if necessary: “As long as the kids understand that he’s doing [the midfield prayer] in his individual and private capacity, which is what he’s doing, it’s perfectly constitutional and not only that, it’s a violation of the constitution to tell him he’s not allowed to pray,” said Hiram Sasser, his attorney. “They’ve already punished Coach Joe by denying his request for religious accommodation,” he went on. “Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, they’ve already violated his civil rights.”

Despite the threats to cease and desist from the school district, Coach Kennedy has continued his post-game prayer, and has no plans to stop. Since the dispute became public, he has received overwhelming support from people of all political persuasions—even Good Morning America featured a segment supporting the coach. As media cameras rolled at Bremerton High’s homecoming game in mid-October, a large group of players from the opposing team as well as fans joined Coach Kennedy for his prayer of thanksgiving after the game. “I tell my kids to be bold in their beliefs,” he says. “I want to set an example to stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t popular.”

UPDATE: On October 28, Coach Kennedy was placed on administrative leave by Superintendent Aaron Leavell for alleged conduct violations. Kennedy's legal team is preparing a lawsuit accusing the school district of religious discrimination.