BREMERTON — An assistant high school football coach in Washington state who lost his job during a controversy over his public post-game prayers is back on the sideline after the U.S. Supreme Court held that his practice was protected by the Constitution.
But after fighting to be rehired for seven years, Joe Kennedy isn’t sure he wants it anymore, and the thought of kneeling in the spotlight again makes him queasy.
On Friday night, he is due to coach his first game since 2015, when he last pressed his knee to the turf at Bremerton High School’s Memorial Stadium. Everyone will be watching for him to pray again, he said.
“Knowing that everybody’s expecting me to go do this kind of gives me a lot of angst in my stomach,” said Kennedy, standing near midfield, where he intends to kneel when the game clock expires Friday. “People are going to freak out that I’m bringing God back into public schools.”
After asking Kennedy to keep any on-field praying non-demonstrative or apart from students, the school district placed him on leave and eventually declined to renew his contract. Officials said they were concerned that tolerating Kennedy’s public post-game prayers would suggest government endorsement of religion, in violation of the separation of church and state.
Kennedy’s fight to get his job back quickly became a cultural touchstone, pitting the religious liberties of government employees against longstanding principles protecting students from religious coercion.
He lost at every court level until the merits of his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year. The conservative majority sided with him, with Justice Neil Gorsuch writing “the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”
The legal fight transformed Kennedy’s life in ways he never anticipated. He has a book coming out in October called “Average Joe,” with a number of release events planned. He appeared at a 2016 rally for Donald Trump, and he and his wife recently had dinner with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a GOP presidential hopeful who asked for his help on the campaign trail.
“He’s like, ‘I want you to be on my faith advisory board.’ And I’m like, ‘Let me get back to you on that,’” Kennedy recalled. “And he just invited me to Iowa and he calls me and he says, ‘Hey, I really need to know, are you in my camp or not?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry. My loyalty is to Trump.’”
DeSantis’ campaign did not return messages seeking comment.
Now, Kennedy, 54, is grappling with whether football still fits into his life. After spending so long trying to get his job back, Kennedy said he felt a duty to return to Washington state for the part-time job that paid him less than $5,000.
But he and his wife live in Florida now — he has been staying with a friend in Bremerton — and he doesn’t know if he will keep coaching beyond Friday.
“So many people are asking, ‘What’s next?’ And I have no idea,” Kennedy said. “Do I stay for the season? Do I stay for a couple of games? Is this the only game? We don’t know.”
Two days before the game, Kennedy rode around town on a borrowed bicycle and then took the field for afternoon practice wearing a sleeveless shirt with the word “essential” on the front. The letter “t” resembled a cross.
He led players in catching and tackling drills. He stuck a hand in his pocket and retrieved folded practice plans. Jogging past a player in line for warm-ups, Kennedy threw a playful block, knocking the student back a yard.
The Bremerton School District declined an interview request and instead referenced a statement published on its website.
“We look forward to moving past the distraction of this nearly 8-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible,” the statement said.
It wasn’t clear if Kennedy’s return would draw protests.
In 2015, a dozen members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle went to a varsity football game at Bremerton High School, many dressed in hooded black robes or masks. Students jeered them, held up crosses, threw liquid and chanted “Jesus.”
The Satanic Temple didn’t return messages from The Associated Press or mention Kennedy’s return on its Facebook page or website.
Kennedy said he will determine his next move after Friday’s game.
“We’ll make some decisions of what’s next in our life, because obviously it’s not going to be football forever,” Kennedy said. “We’d like to do — I don’t know — maybe some ministry or something.”