High school football coach who lost job for praying on field after games to be reinstated

The United States Supreme Court sided with Joseph Kennedy in June.

ByDevin Dwyer and Morgan Winsor via ABC logo
Thursday, October 27, 2022
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Em Nguyen has more on the Supreme Court decision.

A former public high school football coach in Washington state who famously lost his job for leading prayers on the field after games will be reinstated by the spring of next year, court documents show.

A joint stipulation filed in Washington state district court on Tuesday by attorneys representing Joseph Kennedy and lawyers for Bremerton School District stated that "Kennedy is to be reinstated to his previous position as assistant coach of the Bremerton High School football team on or before March 15, 2023."

Kennedy's attorney, Jeremy Dys, confirmed to ABC News that the coach will be moving back to Bremerton, Washington, from Florida later this year to return to his part-time job with the team. It's expected he'd take the field again for the fall 2023 football season.

A spokeswoman for the school district said there are "areas where there are still questions" between the parties as to how Kennedy's post-game prayers will be accommodated consistent with the Supreme Court ruling.

The United States Supreme Court sided with Kennedy in June, when justices ruled 6-3 that the coach was protected by the Constitution when he knelt and prayed aloud at the 50-yard-line post-game, sometimes with his players.

For years, lower courts had repeatedly sided with Bremerton School District in the case. The Supreme Court reversal in favor of Kennedy could soon expand the ability of government employees nationwide to practice their faiths more openly while on the job, according to legal experts.

"This is a right for everybody. It doesn't matter if you're this religion or that religion or have no faith whatsoever," Kennedy told ABC News during an interview earlier this year. "Everybody has the same rights in America."

The First Amendment protects free speech and free exercise of religion, but it also prohibits the establishment of religion by the government. Prior to the ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court had long said that public school-sponsored prayer violates the Establishment Clause, even if the prayer is voluntary.

Kennedy and his attorneys at First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Christian legal group, filed suit against the Bremerton School District after he was suspended seven years ago over the midfield prayers and his contract was not renewed. He insisted the prayers were brief, private individual acts of faith, while the school district argued that student participation breached constitutional prohibitions against the promotion of religion by government officials.

Kennedy had routinely prayed on the field after games for more than seven years, attracting varying levels of participation from students. He said the ritual typically lasted less than a minute.

"It was my covenant between me and God that after every game, win or lose, I'm going to do it right there on the field of battle," he told ABC News.

It wasn't until 2015 that the school district informed the coach of constitutional concerns. In a statement released at the time, the school district said Kennedy's prayers violated "constitutionally-required directives that he refrain from engaging in overt, public religious displays on the football field while on duty."

The school district said it "has a fundamental obligation to protect the rights of all of its students," though the statement noted that no players had complained about the prayer sessions.

"It is very likely that over the years, players have joined in these activities," the school district added, "because to do otherwise would mean potentially alienating themselves from their team, and possibly their coaches."

This story has been updated to include comment from Kennedy's attorney and the Bremerton School District. ABC News' Ahmad Hemingway contributed to this report.