By Mike De Felice
Kitsap News Group
On June 27, Bremerton High School junior varsity football coach Joe Kennedy sat with his cadre of attorneys in Plano, Texas, around a big conference table, staring at a computer screen opened to a SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) blog.
The tension was palatable as they awaited the high court’s decision on a case that began after Kennedy filed a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District, which placed him on paid administrative leave in 2015 after he continued his practice of praying at midfield following games.
At 9 a.m., the decision was posted online. “Everybody just went, ‘Whoa!’ And I’m like, ‘What!?’ They said, ‘There is your case.’”
The room fell silent as Kennedy’s legal team read the 70-page decision, as he waited for their interpretation.
“Time stood still,” Kennedy said with a chuckle. “It was worse than being on the other side of the bathroom door. It was terrible.”
Finally, he said, one of the attorneys blurted out, “We won, [by a vote of the justices] 6-3.” Kennedy said, at first, his heart “was just beating like crazy. My hands started sweating. I’m sitting there, [thinking] ‘Oh, my God – we actually won.’
“I couldn’t comprehend it. It’s been so long — seven years. Then, it felt like my heart flatlined. I just kind of sat there with a dumb look on my face until I started to smile. I didn’t know what else to do so I just threw my hands up like “Touchdown!”
“I probably looked pretty corny, but that was my only reaction.”
Within minutes of the controversial ruling being announced, a string of national TV news media from CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS and others, lined up to interview the coach. “I have no idea who I talked to most of that day,” he said.
That tumultuous religious freedom legal battle ran through a number of federal courts before reaching the marbled steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed in April to hear the case.
Growing up, the 53-year-old Kennedy seemed like the last person who would end up with a case in the highest court in the land, battling for his right to pray on a public school football field.
Kennedy said he endured a hard life growing up. He lived in Bremerton on and off until he was 17. His adoptive parents kicked him out of the house. “I ran away quite often. I was in and out of foster homes and homeless at times,” he recounted. “I was kind of locked up at a boys’ home twice for about a year each.”
At age 13, his family placed him at Flying H Youth Ranch, a Christian-centered program for troubled youth in Naches, WA. His exposure to faith there proved to be foundational for his later interest in religion.
Kennedy’s uncle was a Marine and also had a major influence on him. The uncle’s tough-guy demeanor captivated the rebellious Kennedy and inspired him to join the military. To become a Marine, however, Kennedy needed to get some education under his belt.
“I transferred into Bremerton High School just so I could graduate. The school had the lowest requirements for graduation back in the ’80s,” he said.
Kennedy’s time at the high school was not a high point of his life. He lived by himself in a small apartment. “I was a ghost at the high school. I don’t think anyone would remember who I was. It would be hard for me to pick out five people that I know at Bremerton. Everybody thought I was an ex-con.”
He joined the Marines when he turned 18 and served from 1987-2006, including a stint during the Gulf War.
His faith develops
Kennedy returned to Bremerton in 2006 and worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard as a quality and improvement manager for the nuclear engineering department. Kennedy eventually was introduced to New Life Church in South Kitsap, which helped spur growth in his faith.
In 2008, Kennedy was hired by Bremerton High School. He said he made a commitment that if he ever had the opportunity to become a football coach, he would thank God after each game — a practice he started after his first football game. Over the next seven years, he continued his prayerful practice, causing tensions to rise between him and the school district.
The conflict reached the boiling point in 2015, and Kennedy was put on paid administrative leave. The next season, the district decided not to renew his contract. In 2016, First Liberty Institute filed a suit on Kennedy’s behalf against the school district in federal district court.
Kennedy moved to Florida in April 2020. “We went to Florida because my wife’s father has a whole bunch of health problems. She needs to be with him because there is no one else except for her. Florida was never a permanent thing for us..”
In the Sunshine State, Kennedy worked at a cemetery and later part-time at a tractor supply company. He also tried to get a coaching job but found out he was viewed as too radioactive.
“I went to a few local games and asked about openings. You start talking to people and they say, ‘Yeah, you should come out, we are looking for coaches.’ Then you start talking to people, and they say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy that has the case pending in the court.’ All of sudden that shuts everything down.”
In contact with his players
While Kennedy continues to live across the country, he returns to Kitsap County about six times a year to visit family and maintain contact with some of his football players. “As a matter of fact, I was just invited to perform a wedding ceremony on Hood Canal for one of my former football players who is marrying one of our cheerleaders,” he said.
“Yeah, I’m in contact with all of those guys. Thank God for social media and cell phones. Every time I come back, I have lunch with some of the kids and parents. I have the strongest ties with those guys.”
Kennedy’s family in South Sound includes his parents and sister in Shelton, a daughter in Port Orchard, and his two younger sons, who live a stone’s throw away from BHS. He also has five foster parents and a sister-in-law in Bremerton.
The Supreme Court’s ruling stated that coach Kennedy should not have lost his job for his post-game prayers. His lawyers hope Bremerton School District offers Kennedy his old position so he can return to the football field. The former coach said he can’t wait to get a call from school officials saying he has been rehired.
“As soon as I get that call, I will be on the first flight back to Bremerton,” Kennedy said.
And, yes, he plans to continue praying following games.