"I said 'thank you' probably 30 times," Kennedy told The Daily Signal when asked what he prayed on the 50-yard line at Bremerton High School.
"I had no other words,” he told the Signal. “What do you say to the One who got me here to begin with? It was just ‘thank you.’"
Kennedy, now 54, was reinstated by court order to his former job earlier this year. He appeared on the football field for the first time since 2015. That was when he was ordered by the Bremerton School District to stop mixing his faith with football. A warning letter from the superintendent complained he sprinkled religious references in his post-game pep talks and led a pre-game prayer in the locker room.
“Your talks with students may not include religious express, including prayer," Superintendent Aaron Leavell wrote at the time. "They must remain entirely secular in nature, so as to avoid alienation of any team member."
Kennedy’s biggest fight came on the football field itself, however, since his post-game practice was visible for all the see, including his unhappy bosses.
“I'm being investigated,” Kennedy complained at the time, “for thanking God for the opportunities that have been given me.”
“We finished the race.” - Coach Joe Kennedy pic.twitter.com/Vz6dDD5PIN— Virginia Allen (@Virginia_Allen5) September 2, 2023
Yet the string of legal rulings to come would not agree with him until the summer of 2022. That is when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 the school district violated his civil and constitutional rights by firing him.
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor,” Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion, wrote in his ruling.
Public school grounds and public prayers have a bad history at the nation’s high court, which famously outlawed school-endorsed classroom prayers in a landmark 1962 decision. A ruling in 1992 ended graduation prayers led by clergy, and a Texas case in 2000 ended the practice of beginning football games with an official pre-game prayer.
The high court declined Kennedy’s appeal in 2019, stating that more facts needed to be determined. In 2020, a U.S. District Court granted the school district's motion for summary judgment. The ruling was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which heard oral arguments in January of 2021.
Kennedy was represented by First Liberty Institute.
Bremerton School District was represented by atheist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.