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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Praying Bremerton football coach Joe Kennedy quits, claims retaliation

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy poses in 2015 at Memorial Stadium.  (Larry Steagall/Kitsap Sun)
By Nina Shapiro Seattle Times

After winning a U.S. Supreme Court case to get his coaching job back and igniting a firestorm over praying in public schools, Joe Kennedy resigned only one game into Bremerton High School’s football season.

“The district has received Mr. Kennedy’s resignation and it is pending board approval at tomorrow’s regularly scheduled meeting,” spokesperson Karen Bevers said in an email Wednesday, declining further comment.

Kennedy’s decision was not exactly a surprise.

He strongly hinted before Friday’s game that he might not stick around for his part-time assistant coaching gig. He said the game was a “fine bow” on top of his Supreme Court victory, which cleared the way not only for his return after an eight-year absence but for him to pray on the field. He said he couldn’t think further ahead than that.

Kennedy could not be reached immediately for comment. In a resignation letter obtained by the Seattle Times, he expressed dissatisfaction with the district. “It is apparent that the reinstatement ordered by the Supreme Court will not be fully followed after a series of actions meant to diminish my role and single me out in what I can only believe is retaliation by the school district.”

He gave no indication of such feelings in an interview last week, and it isn’t clear what actions he’s referring to. Kennedy also said in the letter that he’s returning to Florida, where he now lives, because of newly learned complications related to a family member’s declining health. He said previously that he moved to Pensacola to be near his wife’s father.

Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton School District, said it argued before the Supreme Court the case was moot because Kennedy no longer lived in Bremerton.

“For years, Kennedy and his lawyers have said all he wanted was his job back. We were skeptical. And now, here we are, right where we warned the Supreme Court we would be,” Laser said in a statement.

But the case was never just about Kennedy returning to a role that paid him, at the time, roughly $3,000 a season. (His stipend upon coming back in August was $5,304.)

It was about whether and how religion can be practiced in schools and other government entities – a flashpoint in today’s polarized culture wars. Kennedy’s supporters and detractors weighed in across the country. The district received a flood of hateful emails as a result.

Kennedy’s critics have portrayed him as a Christian nationalist extremist, though he and his supporters say he’s standing up for the rights of Jews and Muslims too.

He said he almost got a divorce over his prolonged fight with the district, where his wife worked as a human resource supervisor. She initially opposed his legal battle, but came around, according to Kennedy, who said he continued fighting because “the Constitution and the First Amendment mean so much to me.”

He cast his quandary as being forced “to choose between my faith and my job.”

It all began in 2015 when the district learned Kennedy was praying with students on the field and in the locker room. He had been doing so for years, but now that the district knew, it directed him against overt, on-duty activity that could be taken as an endorsement of religion, for fear of violating the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits establishing a state religion.

He then said he wanted only a “short, private, personal prayer,” according to the a recounting of the case in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, but the district disapproved.

A divided Supreme Court ultimately ruled that Kennedy had a right to pray under free speech and exercise clauses as long as he wasn’t coercing others to join him.

After the ruling, the district wrote a policy that allows coaches to pray while not actively supervising players if the coaches keep their distance from students when the prayers begin. After that, students can join if they choose.

“I can’t tell them to or not to,” Kennedy acknowledged last week. “If they want to join, cool. If they don’t, cool.”

No students did so at Friday’s game against the Mount Douglas Rams, from Victoria, B.C. A larger-than-normal crowd suggested Kennedy’s supporters showed up, but none stormed the field to join him in prayer, as happened at a 2015 homecoming game. A scattering of applause accompanied the coach’s kneeling at the 50-yard line.

Kennedy quit his full-time job at the Bremerton shipyard before moving to Florida. With his newfound celebrity, he has a promotional website, a book coming out in October and a movie about his life in the works. He speaks to political and religious groups, and says politicians including Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, have courted him for his endorsement.

Even with Kennedy off the field, his case will likely continue to be debated. Lawyers say the Supreme Court ruling clarifies the right of public employees to religious expression on the job but leaves murky the question of what constitutes coercion, particularly for those supervising young people.