BREMERTON, Wash. – A Bremerton football coach who was fired for praying on the field during games must be reinstated to his former position by March of 2023 and is entitled to “reasonable attorneys’ fees” from the school, according to court documents.
Joseph Kennedy’s case about his firing made it all the way up to the Supreme Court– with the court ruling 6-3 in favor of the coach getting his job back. In an August 2022 ruling, the justices said Kennedy’s right to pray on the field was protected by the First Amendment.
Kennedy, a Christian, is a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Bremerton. He started coaching at the school in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students started joining him, and over time he began to deliver a short, inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district learned what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop.
Kennedy stopped leading students in prayer in the locker room and on the field but 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 his practice of kneeling and praying while still “on duty” as a coach after the game. When he continued to kneel and pray on the field, the school put him on paid leave.
The district then fired him from his position.
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices.
Following the decision, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said, “it remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation.”
OSPI said it would continue to investigate complaints of public school figures using “positional authority and taxpayer resources” to compel students to participate in religious expression.
“Individuals have always held express rights to exercise their own faith within reasonable limits in public spaces,” State Superintendent Chris Reykdal. “This ruling affirms that right, but it also retains the long-held understanding that church and state (public entities) are separate. Schools will not embrace a particular faith or compel any individual to participate or recognize any faith or religious practice.”
As another part of the ruling, the Bremerton School District “shall not interfere with or prohibit Kennedy from offering a prayer consistent wit the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion.
Both Kennedy and the district will file a joint submission on Nov. 8, that details each side’s proposed wording on the disputed issues and relief issued to Kennedy.