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News / Northwest

Bremerton gears up for first game, return of praying coach Joe Kennedy

By Nina Shapiro, The Seattle Times
Published: September 1, 2023, 1:30pm

BREMERTON — This much we can say for sure: Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy will pray after Friday night’s opening game of the season, as the U.S. Supreme Court said he could.

“I’ll just go over to mid-field, like I always do, face the scoreboard, take a knee, and thank God for being here,” the 54-year-old coach said, sitting in the grandstands after practice Wednesday, having returned to coaching the Knights in early August following an eight-year absence.

What’s unknown: Will others join him in the postgame prayer? If so, will people get worked up about it? And perhaps the biggest question of all: Will Kennedy stick around after the first game?

On the last question, he’s not saying. Everything’s been leading up to Friday’s game, he said, “the fine bow” on top of his Supreme Court victory, which overturned lower court rulings and the public school district’s directive against overt activity while on duty that could be taken as an endorsement of religion. He insisted he can’t think further ahead than Friday.

Kennedy has another life now. Three years ago, he quit his job as a quality improvement manager at the naval shipyard in Bremerton — coaching was a part-time gig paying only a few thousand dollars a year — and his wife gave up her position as human resources supervisor for the Bremerton School District. They moved to Pensacola, Fla., near her father, and bought a house.

Represented by a publicist, Kennedy has a ghostwritten book out in October, “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story,” and a movie in the works that he says is being produced by the people behind the popular “God Is Not Dead” series.

While he said he’s not getting rich, he earns additional money telling his life story to religious and political groups. Politicians seek his endorsement, including he said, Republican presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

“I told him I couldn’t do that yet,” said Kennedy, a longtime supporter of Donald Trump, who backed the coach’s cause. “I got to have my loyalties still.”

Kennedy has not moved back to Bremerton. He’s currently housesitting, and said he and his wife have talked about parking an RV on her sister’s property in the area during football season.

For now, he seems like any other assistant coach on the field, throwing the ball to team members and running through plays, the only public display of faith on Wednesday being his black muscle shirt. It was emblazoned with the word “essential,” a reference to God being essential, he explained. The “t” was elongated to make a cross.

Kennedy said about 50 supporters from across the country plan to come to Friday’s game.

The district is expecting a large crowd because of Kennedy, said spokesperson Karen Bevers, and has arranged for law enforcement officers from two agencies as well as private security guards to be there.

Clearly, the district hopes to avoid the kind of melee that happened at an Oct. 16, 2015, homecoming game. A political and media frenzy was playing out over Kennedy’s battle to continue praying at games. The district was receiving a flood of threatening emails from around the country, some telling school leaders to burn in hell.

As Kennedy began to pray, the coach’s supporters jumped over gates to join him on the field, knocking over students in the process. His team’s players were busy singing a fight song, but opposing team members gathered around Kennedy and bowed their heads.

The district, drawing up extensive policies around Kennedy’s return, is forbidding spectators or media on the field during or immediately following games.

Assuming everyone abides by the rules, that leaves mainly the players on the field with the option of joining Kennedy, or not. The coach routinely led players in prayer before word of it reached the district, which told him to stop for fear of violating the Constitution’s establishment clause, prohibiting a government-established religion.

But the Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s prayers did not violate that clause and were, in fact, protected by free speech and exercise clauses, provided that the coach didn’t coerce anyone to participate.

The district then adopted a carefully worded policy allowing coaches to pray when they’re not actively supervising players — as long as the coaches don’t invite anyone to join in and are at least 25 feet from students when the prayers begin.

When the prayers get going, that’s a different story. “Students who are on the field are allowed to join Mr. Kennedy if they so choose,” said Bevers in an email.

Kennedy said he accepts those rules. “I can’t tell them to or not to,” he acknowledged. “If they want to join, cool. If they don’t, cool.”

A couple of Knights players this week said they were proud of their religion and would definitely join in, a couple of others said they hadn’t thought about it, and one, who typically prays by himself in the locker room, was undecided. He said he wants to avoid finding himself on the cover of a magazine.

A purple city’s split opinion

Bremerton is racially and economically diverse, and politically purple. The shipyard and hulking Navy carriers line its waterfront. A few blocks away, a poster outside a bookstore proclaims “we sell banned books” and  another on a used record store window indicates support for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Asking people around town about Kennedy, a striking number haven’t heard of him or the firestorm he ignited in 2015.

As Dennis Saulsberry, sitting down for coffee and a smoke near the waterfront, said, “it’s been a while.”

Among those who remember, opinion seems split, as it always was.

“I support him as long as he’s there for the kids,” said Saulsberry, a cement mason finisher whose brother once coached with Kennedy. Praying with his players, Saulsberry said, “was an opportunity for them to come together as a team, as a family.”

If kids have the right to express their gender identity, he added, alluding to many schools’ policies around transgender students, “why can’t you let that same freedom be for their spirituality.”

Emily Lukkasson, a shipyard auditor stepping out for lunch, said she thought Kennedy’s return was “awesome.”

“He should be back if it was determined that he didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. She thought a renewed furor is unlikely once people realize the coach isn’t “shoving things down [students’] throats.”

Nico Valentine, in contrast, exploded while waiting to pick up her daughter, a Bremerton High freshman, on the first day of school. “I’m so mad he’s back,” said the bartender and musician.

She worried the coach would find “sneaky ways” of indoctrinating kids. “This is how we get to be Florida,” she said, referring to moves in that state to ban books from school libraries and limit what can be taught about racism.

“I think he’s taking money away from the school kids,” Valentine added.

The district agreed to a settlement that will pay $1,755,000 for Kennedy’s lawyer fees, spread out over three years, with an undetermined amount coming from the district’s insurance.

Bremerton High parent Eric Morley, who works in the insurance industry, said he was also unhappy about Kennedy’s presence and what he took to be an attempt to appease Kennedy, a Marine veteran, by having a military theme at Friday’s game.

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His daughter will be among band and choir members on the field singing the national anthem. “I’m concerned about her and her safety,” Morley said. Daughter Claire also said she was nervous.

School athletic director Amber Plummer Borowski said the military theme has nothing to do with Kennedy and was prompted by another coach and veteran’s desire to honor those he served with. There’s also an international friendship theme to the game against the Mount Douglas Rams, from Victoria, B.C., and Bremerton High students will sing both the Canadian and American national anthems, Plummer Borowski said.

Jennifer Chamberlin offered one of the most telling responses to Kennedy’s return.

Eight years ago, she was a clerical worker at the high school, voicing outrage at Kennedy’s prayers. They reminded her of a time that she was bullied for objecting to football game prayers at her Tennessee high school.

Chamberlin is on City Council now and focused, she said, on protecting vulnerable Bremerton residents. “I could really care less about him,” she said of Kennedy.

She may not have liked the victory the Supreme Court handed him, but said “sometimes, you’ve got to take your lumps and move on.”

Overturning 50 years of precedent?

Indeed, a lot of people talk about moving on. For Bremerton High, that would mean uneventful football games, whether Kennedy stays or not.

But his case has broader implications for religious expression in schools.

Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel for the First Liberty Institute, a national religious rights group that represented Kennedy, said the Supreme Court ruling in the case “overturned 50 years of precedent.”

Before, he said, if something religious in nature was happening at school, “the safe advice from a school district lawyer would be to censor.” Now, he said, a lawyer’s first instinct should be to accommodate such activity.

Sasser, who lives in Dallas, said he’s been contacted about maybe 100 situations where the ruling would apply, from “passive displays” of religion, like a Bible on a desk or a cross necklace, to Muslim teachers needing to pray during lunch or class time.

Bob Gomulkiewicz, a University of Washington law professor who teaches a class on the First Amendment, doesn’t see the Kennedy ruling as quite that significant. He said the ruling is consistent with decades of Supreme Court precedent saying teachers and students don’t “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” as a seminal 1969 case put it.

But Gomulkiewicz said he does think the Kennedy case clarified that individual religious acts — as opposed to a public school organizing prayers or having them read over a loudspeaker — do not violate the establishment clause.

Still, some tricky questions remain. The Supreme Court ruling noted that coercion is unacceptable. But where’s the line? Students can feel subtle coercion to follow the lead of teachers or coaches.

Figuring that out is complicated by “messy facts” in the Kennedy case, said Seattle lawyer Caesar Kalinowski IV. The majority Supreme Court opinion, written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, looked at a snapshot in time when Kennedy said he wanted to pray on his own. A dissenting opinion, authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, noted the coach’s history of communal prayers.

Kalinowski said more cases are needed to say: “OK, you do have a right to practice your faith in a public way, even if you’re a government employee. However, if you do, X, Y, and Z, this will step over the line.”