Joe Kennedy was little known outside of the Bremerton High School athletes and their families who, for years, turned to him for advice, encouragement and support.
Now, “Coach Joe” stands at the center of a national debate on First Amendment rights, religious freedom and prayer in public schools.
But from the national spotlight, Kennedy says what he truly wants is to return to Bremerton, be with his children, grandchildren and friends — and get his old job back.
The case brought by Kennedy against the Bremerton School District tackles questions of balancing teachers and coaches’ religious and free-speech rights with students’ rights to not feel pressured to participate in religious practices. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case April 25.
Bob Gomulkiewicz, a constitutional law professor at the University of Washington, said a win for Kennedy could be celebrated as a win for diversity of thought among teaching staff and could ultimately lead to more guidance for public schools as they seek to tread the fine line between competing rights. Others fear that outcome could blur the lines between church and state and be a first step toward imposing prayer in public schools.
Jennifer Chamberlin, a Bremerton City Council member and clerical assistant at Bremerton High School, fears if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Kennedy, her former colleague, something she experienced as a high-school student in Tennessee will continue.
As a band student, she was on the field when a graphic Christian prayer about the blood of Jesus was recited over the loud speaker.
She was just beginning to realize she was either agnostic or atheist, and it made her more than uncomfortable, she said.
But when she tried to discuss her feelings with the band teacher and other school officials, she was ignored and shunned. A short time later, she dropped out and moved back to Washington.
“It was very surreal to have this whole case unfold in front of me,” said Chamberlin, who was among the people who reached out to the ACLU when the Kennedy matter first came up. “I knew it was going to turn out to be a very big deal, and I knew I had to speak out because there was no adult who spoke out for me.”
Kennedy, who served in the Marine Corps for nearly two decades, started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. But, he said, students started joining him, and over time he began giving short, inspirational talks with religious references.
The school district learned of these actions after a visiting coach told administrators it was nice to see that allowed in 2015. Kennedy said he led these talks for years.
The district then asked him to stop. Initially, he said he would comply and stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field. But he wanted to continue praying on the field himself, with students free to join if they wished.
Concerned about being sued for violating students’ religious-freedom rights, the school asked him to stop kneeling and praying after games while still “on duty” as a coach. The school searched for a solution so Kennedy could pray privately before or after games. He continued to kneel and pray on the field, and the school put him on paid leave. When his season-to-season contract expired, it was not renewed.
Lawyers for the school district say administrators had no problem letting Kennedy pray separately from students or letting him return to the field to pray after students left. But they could not allow him to pray with students midfield immediately after games without the risk it would be seen as government endorsement of religion, they said.
Being hired back as a coach and being able to have public prayer on the 50-yard line is the only relief Kennedy is seeking from the court.
While Bremerton School District did not respond directly to questions about whether Kennedy would get his old job back should he win, there are three potential outcomes when the court releases its ruling. The court typically releases the majority of its decisions in mid-June.
The Supreme Court could affirm the lower court’s opinion — a win for the district. The court could reverse the lower court’s opinion and order that summary judgment be granted for Kennedy, in which case he wins.
The third possible outcome is the Supreme Court reversing, or vacating, the lower court’s opinion and remands, sending the case back for trial in the lower courts. Should that happen, the litigation continues.
“If the Supreme Court gets this case wrong, we could witness the greatest loss of religious freedom in generations,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United, which is defending the school district.
“We’re on very dangerous ground if the Court is considering overturning decades of established law that prevents government employees from pressuring students to pray in public schools,” she said.
Jeremy Dys of the First Liberty Institute, which has been representing Kennedy since before he filed the wrongful termination suit against the school district, said this week he thinks all of the justices understood the facts and nuances of the case.
“The school district has forced this coach to make a decision that no American should have to make between a job they love and their religion,” Dys said.
Gomulkiewicz said the case is really about finding delicate balance between the First Amendment’s competing clauses that protect free speech and free expression and the so-called establishment clause, which bans government from endorsing religion and the coercion of school children.
“I think the court is wrestling with not just religious expression but how students can feel pressure to conform to the beliefs of their teachers and coaches,” he said. “Is that really coercion or is that the product of us allowing teachers to express themselves in various ways?”
In the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines case, sparked by students’ plans to wear black armbands to school in protest of the Vietnam War, the Supreme Court ruled that neither students nor teachers “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
Gomulkiewicz said issues arise when prayer is sponsored by public schools, students are required to pray or students are part of a captive audience.
“A case that came up was when a school invited a rabbi to give a prayer in a junior-high setting during graduation,” he said. In that case, the school sponsored the prayer by inviting the rabbi and the students were a captive audience because “‘most people want to attend their graduation.'”
Gomulkiewicz said this case is different. “The school didn’t ask him to do it. In fact, they did the opposite, and you don’t have a captive audience. People are doing all sorts of different things on a field after a game.”
In a statement, AU said the case is about the religious freedom of students and the country’s foundational principle of church-state separation.
AU Vice President and Legal Director Richard Katskee, who is arguing the case before the Supreme Court, said in the statement that the Bremerton School District did the right thing.
“Bremerton students felt coerced by their football coach’s orchestrated public prayers on the 50-yard line immediately after football games,” he said. “No student should feel pressured to pray to play.”
As for Kennedy, who temporarily moved to Florida two years ago to help care for his wife’s ailing father, he said the journey from the football field to the Supreme Court has been surreal. It’s been incredible to get letters of support from all around the world, he said. As for the hate mail, he says he always tries to engage and have a conversation.
“I offer to meet people and talk,” he said.
Seattle Times researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which also includes information from The Associated Press and The Seattle Times archives.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.