BREMERTON, Wash. (AP) — An assistant high school football coach in Washington state who lost his job during a controversy over his public post-game prayers was back on the field Friday after the U.S. Supreme Court held his practice was protected by the Constitution.
Joe Kennedy strode alone to midfield, knelt and prayed for about 10 seconds after his Bremerton High School football team beat visiting Mount Douglas Secondary School 27-12 Friday night.
Kennedy was not joined by any athletes or others on the nearly empty field. There was scattered applause from the modest crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Police and private security guards were on hand but there didn't appear to be any problems or interruptions during or after the event.
Kennedy had fought to be rehired for seven years but seemed more anxious than triumphant about his return.
“Knowing that everybody’s expecting me to go do this kind of gives me a lot of angst in my stomach,” Kennedy said before the game. “People are going to freak out that I’m bringing God back into public schools.”
It was his first game as coach since 2015, when he was placed on leave after warnings from the school district, which eventually declined to renew his contract.
The district had asked Kennedy to keep any on-field praying non-demonstrative or apart from students, saying they were concerned that tolerating his 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.
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.
Before Friday's game, it wasn’t clear if Kennedy’s return would draw protests. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which works to keep government and religion separate, placed a billboard message near the school that read: “Wishing Bremerton High School a safe, secular & successful school year."
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 would 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.”