Washington Football Coach Resigns, Citing ‘Retaliation’ for His Supreme Court Victory

Joseph Kennedy, the winning plaintiff in 2022’s Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision, says school officials targeted him.

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court April 25, 2022, in Washington.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court April 25, 2022, in Washington. (photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Washington state high-school football coach Joseph Kennedy, who won an eight-year court battle to be able to pray at midfield after games and then resigned after his first game back, is accusing school officials of retaliating against him.

“[I]t is apparent that the reinstatement ordered by the Supreme Court will not be fully followed after a series of actions meant to diminish my role and single me out in what I can only believe is retaliation by the school district,” assistant coach Joseph Kennedy wrote Wednesday in a letter to the head football coach at Bremerton High School, about 17 miles west of Seattle. “Therefore, I am tendering my immediate resignation.”

First Liberty Institute, of Plano, Texas, the legal advocacy organization that represented Kennedy in the U.S. Supreme Court case, said it is looking into the school district’s actions. The institute made the text of Kennedy’s letter of resignation publicly available through a written statement.

“We have come to learn of serious allegations of retaliation against Coach Kennedy by the Bremerton school district. They’ve done everything they can to make him feel unwelcome. We are going to investigate the situation to determine whether further legal action is necessary,” said Hiram Sasser, executive general counsel of First Liberty Institute in a written statement through a spokesman.

While the U.S. Supreme Court decided the football-coach case more than a year ago, lower-court wrangling continued until earlier this year, court records show. So Kennedy did not get his job back until this season.

Bremerton’s first game, at home, took place Sept. 1, a 27-12 victory. After the game, Kennedy went to midfield and dropped to one knee briefly to pray. No one accompanied him, but his action drew scattered applause from the modest crowd in the stands, according to Fox 13 Seattle.

Five days later, Kennedy resigned.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a picnic for anybody. Seems like both sides were put into a weird situation — being forced to take me back and forcing my way back,” Kennedy told Fox 13 Seattle on Wednesday, hours after submitting his resignation to the school district.

Sasser told Fox & Friends on Thursday that the team wouldn’t give Kennedy a play card, which coaches use to draw up plays for the game, wouldn’t give him a coaching assignment for the game, wouldn’t give him a locker, banned him from the team meal, banned him from certain team meetings, and wouldn’t allow him to stand near the head coach or players during the game.

A spokesman for the Bremerton School District contacted by the Register said by email: “The District does not comment on personnel matters, so we will not be issuing any further statements.”

Kennedy told Fox 13 Seattle earlier this week that school administrators wanted him to keep a 25-foot perimeter from students during prayers and to wait 20 minutes after a game before praying. Communication with the players was also limited, Kennedy said.

“I really wasn’t allowed to talk to them about anything,” he said.

Kennedy, 54, now lives in Florida. In his resignation letter, he also cited “an additional complication” of an ailing family member — his father-in-law, he told Fox 13 Seattle — as a factor in his decision to leave the team.


Court Case Ended Lemon Test in Religious-Freedom Cases

Kennedy, a former Marine, started working as an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School in 2008, remaining there as an assistant for eight seasons. After each game he would go to midfield and pray for a short time. Students would occasionally accompany him in praying.

The superintendent of schools found out about it in September 2015, after an opposing coach praised the school district for allowing it. After an extensive back-and-forth, the superintendent eventually fired Kennedy, saying his actions violated the U.S. Constitution.

Supporters of Kennedy said he had a right to pray in public and that he set a good example for his players. Opponents said his actions violated the separation of church and state, which they consider vital.

Kennedy was the winning plaintiff in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a 6-3 U.S. Supreme Court decision in June 2022, in which the court said “the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”

The football coach-prayer dispute is one of several recent cases in which the high court has expanded its previous interpretation of the constitutional right to religious freedom.

The court used Kennedy v. Bremerton to formally extinguish the Lemon test, named after a 1971 case in which the court created a three-prong test to determine if a state statute passed muster under the federal Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion — the court said such a law had to have “a secular legislative purpose,” had to have a “principal or primary effect” that “neither advances nor inhibits religion,” and had to avoid “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”


Book, Movie, Public Speaking

Kennedy has appeared at campaign events with Donald Trump, and he recently had dinner with Ron DeSantis. They are the two leading candidates for president in the Republican primary.

But he told DeSantis he is loyal to former President Trump, according to The Associated Press.

Kennedy said on his website that he has a book coming out in late October called Average Joe and that a movie about his life “is in pre-production.” He is also available as a public speaker.

“I believe I can best continue to advocate for constitutional freedom and religious liberty by working from outside the school system so that is what I will do,” Kennedy said in a written statement after resigning. “I will continue to work to help people understand and embrace the historic ruling at the heart of our case. As a result of our case, we all have more freedom, not less. That should be celebrated and not disrespected.”