‘I fought for right to pray’

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Joseph Kennedy, a 53-year-old high school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., was fired for praying at the 50-yard line after games. A former US Marine, Kennedy fought back all the way to the Supreme Court, where he won his case in a 6-3 decision last month, which he called “great news for the entire nation.” Here, Kennedy tells The Post’s Michael Kaplan about his battle, his victory and what he’ll do next…

I never intended to be a football coach, but maybe it was part of God’s plan. In 2008, two years after leaving the Marines as a gunnery sergeant, I was jogging in Bremerton, where I live with my wife and five kids. A guy pulled up alongside me and asked if I ever thought of coaching football. At the time I was wearing a Bremerton football jersey, and it turns out he was the high school’s athletic director. It was a little weird, but I said I would think about it.

That weekend, I watched a movie on TV. It was called “Facing the Giants,” about a high school coach who kneels down and prays to God after each game. That hit me in the face. I saw it as a message, took the part-time paid job as assistant coach for the varsity team and head coach for junior varsity, and, like the character in the movie, decided to kneel down on my own and quietly thank God after each game.

I believe becoming a coach was “God’s plan” says the author, a former Marine and father of five.
AP

The job was cool. I was thankful for being part of the kids’ lives. Like a lot of football teams, we prayed in the locker room before the games, asking God to be pleased with the team’s performance and help us give 100 percent. Then, after each game, both teams lined up on the 50-yard-line, with players from both sides shaking hands and high-fiving as the band played the school fight song. That’s when I got down on one knee and held a helmet to the Heavens. I would silently say, “God, that was amazing. Thank you for these guys.”

My prayer lasted less than 10 seconds. Then I’d get up, dust off the mud and grass, and head back to the locker room with the team.

About six months later, a few players came up and asked what I was doing after the games. I said I was thanking God for what they did. They asked if they could join me. I told them it’s a free country and they can do what they want. Three kids joined me and I added to my prayer. On the battlefield — the place of blood, sweat and tears — I thanked God for helping these young warriors.

After a while, one of my team’s captains went over the other team’s players and asked if they wanted to join as well. Sometimes they did. On those occasions, I held up two helmets, one from each team, and thanked God for all of us. There would be maybe a dozen people on the 50-yard-line and it lasted about 15 seconds. For eight years, we did this prayer after games and nobody thought to comment. Two players on our team did not want to participate, and I was fine with that. I thought enough of them that I made them two of our four captains.

Joe prayed at the 50-yard line alone until a curious group of players asked if they could join him. It's a free country, he said, and told them they were welcome to participate.
Joe prayed at the 50-yard line alone until a curious group of players asked if they could join him. It’s a free country, he said, and told them they were welcome to participate.
AP

Then, in September 2015, a person from another school district saw us and called the principal. I found out later that he had complimented us, telling the principal that what we were doing was really awesome.

Not long after, I went to the coaches’ office to get ready for a game after finishing my full-time job as a quality control manager at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. The atmosphere in the office was casual, as it normally is, with guys figuring out the lineup and which plays we will run. Then one of the coaches suddenly said, “Way to go, Kennedy.” I didn’t know what he was talking about.

Another one of the coaches said, “The athletic director was in here, talking about your prayer. They have concerns.” I asked what he meant. He replied, “Don’t push it.”

All of a sudden, the situation felt serious. But I tried to keep it from bothering me. While in the Marines, I had been in plenty of high-pressure spots. I simply asked, “What’s the worst they can do to me?” One of the coaches responded, “They can fire you.”

Almost in panic mode, I went onto Facebook and typed, “I think I just got fired for praying.” The posting went viral.
Almost in panic mode, I went onto Facebook and typed, “I think I just got fired for praying.” The posting went viral.
AP

Clearly, they didn’t want me to pray, and it made me bristle. As a Marine, I fought for our freedoms, including the First Amendment. I fought for us to have that right.

Later that night, we played the game, and it went into triple overtime. Another game was set to kick off after we finished. There were a lot of people on the field; kids were running all over the place. The athletic director came up to me and he supportively said, “Boy, we sure dodged a bullet. You won’t have time to say your prayer.”

I shrugged and told him, “It’s amazing how God works things out.”

“Clearly, they didn’t want me to pray, and it made me bristle. As a Marine, I fought for our freedoms, including the First Amendment. I fought for us to have that right.”

Joe Kennedy, on why he took his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

But then a kid from the other team came over and asked me to include his helmet when I prayed. I couldn’t say no. Suddenly, it was my team, the other team, some coaches, all of us down on one knee and praying. I looked over and saw the athletic director walking away in a huff. He did not look like a happy person. The assistant coach just stood there, shaking his head. The head coach mouthed, “They’re going to fire you.”

That went right to my gut. I felt sick to my stomach and thought I would throw up. When we headed to the locker room, none of the coaches from our team said anything to me. Almost in panic mode, I went onto Facebook and typed, “I think I just got fired for praying.” Then I pushed the send button and turned off my phone.

I have only a handful of friends on Facebook and did not think it would be a big deal.

But the next morning, I turned on my phone and had a lot of messages. The posting went viral. People wanted to know what was going on. A friend called from Virginia and said I was on TV. I was in shock. One of the reports said, “Coach fired for praying.” I wondered if I was fired.

In 2015, Bremerton High School told Joe that he could continue coaching but he had to stop praying on the field. When Joe refused to stop praying, he was suspended.
In 2015, Bremerton High School told Joe that he could continue coaching but he had to stop praying on the field. When Joe refused to stop praying, he was suspended.
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Next morning, I went in to meet with the superintendent. He told me that the school has a rule against encouraging or discouraging prayer. The school’s lawyer investigated the situation and gave me a letter stating that it was okay for me to pray as long as it does not affect my job duties. And they did not want me to pray with the students.

I was happy to comply with that; my original commitment was to pray on my own. I delicately phrased it to the team: “People in the administration building are concerned. I will appreciate it if you let me pray alone after the game.”

The players were fine with that. After the game ended that week, in mid-September, I went to the 50-yard line, took a knee and prayed on my own. We were at an away game and nobody cared.

Joe’s entire legal battle took over six years and earned him three meetings with President Trump.
Joe’s entire legal battle took over six years and earned him three meetings with President Trump.
Getty Images

Back on our home field, though, after a game in October, I prayed silently and alone on the 50-yard line, with my eyes closed. Suddenly I smelled players around me. I prayed to God it wasn’t my team. I opened my eyes and saw that I was surrounded by the opposing team. One of my buddies grabbed me and pulled me off the field.

The school didn’t like that. I got put on administrative leave until I complied with a directive to pray out of sight.

At that point, I had started working with attorneys, representing me pro bono, from the Dallas office of First Liberty Institute, a nationwide legal organization that defends religious liberty for all Americans. My attorney started dealing with the school officials and their attorneys. There were emails going back and forth.

On October 23, 2015, the school sent an email to my lawyer and me, saying I was allowed to coach but not pray on the field at all. My lawyer responded, saying I refused to comply. That got me suspended.

Joe was in his lawyer's office this past June when he learned that the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor. His first reaction was to raise his arms like his team had made a touchdown.
Joe was in his lawyer’s office this past June when he learned that the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor. His first reaction was to raise his arms like his team had scored a touchdown.
AP

I was still allowed to attend games. I did that, but it sucked. I sat in the stands and could not go on the field. I was proud just to be there, but it hurt to watch a kid get angry and throw his helmet onto the ground. Part of my job was to pick up the helmet and put it on the player’s head.

But I figured I would be allowed back the following year. I expected the suspension to be temporary.

Then, in November of 2015, my wife, who works in the school district’s human resources department, came home with my evaluation. It’s a written form and every year it came with an automatic renewal if I wanted to be rehired. I always had high marks and the renewal option. But this year the marks were terrible and they checked the “do not renew” box. In big, bold letters, it said, “DO NOT REHIRE.” It was a death sentence.

I could have just rolled over and given up on coaching, but I am a Marine and Marines never give up. So I went the legal route, to regain my right to pray on the field and to get back my coaching job. In August of 2016, I sued the school district on the grounds of violating the First Amendment and trampling my civil rights.

For eight years Joe gathered at the 50-yard line reciting prayers that lasted mere seconds; players wishing not to join were entirely free to do so, he writes.
For eight years Joe gathered at the 50-yard line reciting prayers that lasted mere seconds; players wishing not to join were entirely free to do so, he writes.
AP

That was when the school district’s attorney started to claim that I pressured students to pray. That claim is not accurate. In fact, the school district even said, when they originally suspended me, that there was no evidence of students being coerced to pray with me.

I was exasperated that they would go to such a length to make me look bad. Local reporters started asking me about this. I challenged them to find one student who felt pressured by me. And they couldn’t find anyone. It was garbage.

We spent six years fighting this thing in court. Along the way, President Trump found out and mentioned me in a couple speeches. It was humbling to have the president knowing my name and, later on, to actually meet him three times. First, when he was running for president, at a rally, in 2016. Another time, when he was in the White House, I went to the Oval Office and got to sit at his desk. That was the coolest experience ever.

Then I was in the Rose Garden for the President’s last Town Hall in 2020. I asked him what he would do during the next four years if re-elected. He said, “I did a lot for you with the judges.” It was fun.

Kennedy loved coaching at Bremerton, so much so that he hopes return to the playing field in September.
Kennedy loved coaching at Bremerton, so much so that he hopes return to the playing field in September.
Photo credit: First Liberty Inst

But the entire experience — particularly being involved in a Supreme Court case — was overwhelming. I worked full time, supported my family, got an MBA in aerospace defense through remote classes at University of Tennessee during 2015 and 2016, and worked with my lawyers on the case. It went from district court to the 9th circuit to the Supreme Court and then back through all three again. My lawyer likes to say that we lost the regular season games and won the Super Bowl.

“Hopefully, everybody’s religious rights will now be respected. I don’t think anyone — regardless of their religion — should fear praying in public. The First Amendment doesn’t only apply to some Americans. It applies to all of us.”

Joe Kennedy on winning his Supreme Court case

Through it all, I got a lot of attention, but it sucked. I didn’t want to be known as the Praying Coach. I wanted to be known as a Marine and a good football coach. On the upside, the Constitution means everything to me. As a Marine, I swore to defend the Constitution. But I did not expect to be doing it as a civilian.

On June 27 this year, I was in my lawyer’s office in Dallas because we all knew that the Supreme Court decision was about to come down. Everyone was glued to the Supreme Court website, where decisions get announced. Then my lawyer said, “It’s there!”

All of a sudden everyone was jumping up and down, hugging each other, giving high fives. The Supreme Court ruled in our favor! I raised my arms in the air, as if I was calling a touchdown. Afterward, we did interviews until midnight. It wasn’t until a few days later that I went out for a celebratory steak dinner with my family.

Now I’m sitting tight, hoping for the school to call me back to coach. (Right after the ruling, a school district spokesperson told the Seattle Times that “it could not confirm” whether or not Kennedy would be reinstated.) I’m just eager to sit down and talk to the other coaches about who will be playing what positions in September. That is the only thing I want. I don’t even want back pay. I’m happy to have my religious rights and not to have to leave them behind whenever I go to the field. Hopefully, everybody’s religious rights will now be respected. I don’t think anyone — regardless of their religion — should fear praying in public. The First Amendment doesn’t only apply to some Americans. It applies to all of us.

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