High school football coach at the center of prayer debate gets reinstated, receives $1.7 million settlement

Former Bremerton High School (Wash.) football coach Joseph Kennedy, who was let go after continuing to lead midfield prayers with players and other students following the games, has been reinstated and will reportedly receive a $1.7 million settlement.

According to the Kitsap Sun, the Supreme Court ruled that Kennedy’s prayers were a private matter and did not amount to the school district’s endorsement of Christianity.

The vote from the high court in the June 27, 2022 Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District decision was 6-3, in which all Republican seats voted in favor of Kennedy while all Democratic seats voted against him.

“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority.

Kennedy’s religious beliefs and free will to enact them became a national focal point after his 2015 dismissal resulted in a lawsuit led by the nonprofit conservative Christian legal organization First Liberty Institute.

The fired coach argued that his actions were private acts of faith.

June 13, 2017: Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy stands in federal court along with attorney Mike Berry and Denise Kennedy, Joe Kennedy’s wife. (Michaela Roman-USA TODAY NETWORK)

The District disagreed, highlighting that the First Amendment protects free speech and religion but does prohibit the establishment of religion by the government.

Prior courts had also said that public school-sponsored prayer violated the Establishment Clause, even if the prayer was voluntary. However, the currently appointed Supreme Court judges had enough in the majority to believe that Kennedy’s actions violated no such clause—though not without dissent.

“Official-led prayer strikes at the core of our constitutional protections for the religious liberty of students and their parents,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.

Washington’s Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction made a clear stance as well, taking a hard line on a very subjective matter:

“It remains illegal and unethical for public school employees to coerce, pressure, persuade, or force students, players, staff, or other participants to engage in any religious practice as a condition of playing, employment, belonging, or participation.”

In the end, Kennedy’s case against the Bremerton School Board and its national coverage has reignited longstanding debates about ideologies and protections for faith-based actions in the school.

Monday’s ruling marks a significant victory for those who support the coach’s efforts.

“This is just so awesome,” Kennedy said Monday, in a statement. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys.”

Kennedy will return to the school in 2023, where it’s expected he’ll be on the sidelines for the football team and will continue his postgame prayers.

(Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Supreme Court’s decision occurred on Monday, June 27, 2022.)

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