Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy has become somewhat of a celebrity — especially among politicians — but there has been a price to pay.
The latest politician to take notice of Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy is presidential candidate Ted Cruz.
It’s been two months since Kennedy prayed after a game, despite the district giving him an attorney-written directive telling him to stop.
On Saturday, Cruz will host the South Carolina Rally for Religious Freedom at the conservative Bob Jones University in Greenville.
Kennedy, 46, and an 18-year Marine veteran, will be among the five honorees.
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The coach says he’s showing up, but not endorsing Cruz — instead speaking “about constitutional rights of Americans and my story.”
Until recently, Kennedy had been the gung-ho coach known to players and parents. These days, the likes of ex-Seahawk Steve Largent, Donald Trump, Ben Carson and host of other politicians are taking notice.
The coach’s Facebook following keeps increasing by the day — he’s up to 2,367 friends. “You started something GREAT Bro,” read one post.
But the controversy and his newfound fame has come with a price — for both sides.
For Kennedy, it’s possibly the end of coaching a team he loves. He says he has to be true to himself, and teach his players about standing up for what they believe in. He also figures to not have his four-month, $4,398 annual contract renewed after it expires Dec. 5.
“Who cares about the money,” says Kennedy. “I don’t care about anything else but being with my teammates, to be with my guys.”
For the district the toll is money spent on attorneys and having the school put in the middle of a religious controversy. The district is sticking by its attorney-written directive about not mixing religion and public school, and so far has spent $17,112 on legal expenses, and set aside an additional $50,000 for more such costs.
The money eventually comes out of the general fund that would otherwise be used for classrooms, says district spokeswoman Patty Glaser. This is a high school with 58 percent of the kids on free or reduced-price meals.
Kennedy is being represented for free by the Liberty Institute out of Plano, Texas, a “religious liberty” nonprofit. Kennedy says the group approached him. In fiscal 2013, the institute got $8.4 million in contributions.
(If things escalate to a lawsuit, as the Liberty Institute has threatened, the district is part of an insurance-risk pool that’d cover those costs. The institute says that it will file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.)
It was an innocent remark that started the controversy. Kennedy had always prayed after games, and in previous years there had been no complaints.
Earlier in this football season, however, “An employee of another district mentioned the postgame prayers to a district administrator,” says the Bremerton district.
On Sept. 17, the district gave Kennedy a three-page letter with the message being: Keep the praying off the field.
The next day, after a 33-0 loss, Kennedy didn’t pray but opted for a one-minute motivational talk about “No matter what that score says, we’re about the legacy that we’re leaving forward … ”
Then, he says, “I prayed alone on the 50 about 11 p.m. after everyone went home.”
He did the same after the next two games, he says.
At the Oct. 16 game, with the Liberty Institute now behind him, Kennedy prayed at midfield, surrounded by media. Adding to the photo opportunities, a contingent of the Seattle chapter of The Satanist Temple showed, wearing black robes and one costumed with horns. They soon left amid catcalls from students.
On Oct. 28, Kennedy was placed on paid administrative leave, not able to participate “in any capacity” unless he refrained from praying.
He has a full-time manager job with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. During fall seasons, he has juggled work with his afternoon, Saturday and game nights as the JV coach and assistant varsity coach at Bremerton.
His contract renewal is dependent on “pending program needs and satisfactory evaluation,” says the district.
And if the district doesn’t renew, what then?
“I don’t know,” says Kennedy.
“I know it’ll probably happen. I haven’t come to terms with it.”