How an unknown high school football coach landed in the center of a Supreme Court religious liberty case

Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach, lost his job after defying school policy by praying at the 50-yard line after games, often with students. Victoria Will for ESPN

BREMERTON, Wash. -- Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy says he never wanted to become a symbol of the religious right, or to have his name mentioned by political figures including Sen. Ted Cruz and former President Donald Trump.

All he wanted, he says, was to connect with young people by coaching football, and to connect with God by saying a brief midfield prayer after each game.

"I'd take a knee and thank God for what the guys just did and the opportunity to be a coach," Kennedy told ESPN, adding: "I wanted to hang out with my players and develop these young men."

Yet the 52-year-old finds himself out of coaching and in the midst of a raging legal battle ignited when he insisted on taking a knee at midfield to pray after games, often with students. Bremerton public school officials removed him from his job in 2015 after he refused to stop his on-field prayers, which they said violated the Constitution's prohibition against government endorsement of religion.

"The coach is a mixture of fear and awe. And you want in with the coach. You want playing time. You don't want the bench," said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is representing the school board. She added: "It is a slippery slope to religion being used to discriminate and exclude."

Kennedy sued, and over the past seven years his case has wound its way from this blue-collar, military town across the Puget Sound from Seattle to the U.S. Supreme Court. The case thrust Kennedy, a former Marine who only reluctantly signed on to help coach a mediocre high school football team, into what legal analysts see as potentially one of the most consequential cases in recent years testing the separation of church and state.

The question before the Supreme Court is whether Kennedy's on-field prayers are protected by the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty, or whether they violate the First Amendment by promoting his religion. The justices are scheduled to hear oral arguments Monday and issue an opinion by late June.

Many legal observers say it is likely that the Supreme Court will rule in Kennedy's favor, given its recent deference to religious liberty. But the case's larger impact will turn on whether the justices view Kennedy's prayers as private expressions of thanks or public spectacles. Their decision could loosen legal restrictions on how teachers and other staff can express their faith in public schools.

"The court could decide it rather narrowly and say this really wasn't a personal private prayer and therefore the school can prohibit it," said Howard M. Friedman, a professor emeritus at the University of Toledo's College of Law. "The court could also go off on much broader grounds in terms of how much freedom a teacher or a coach has to engage in religious practices, and then it would be a much more important case."

KENNEDY WAS NOT sure he wanted to take the part-time coaching job at his alma mater when the school's athletic director offered it to him in 2008. He had never played organized football, plus he was worried about scheduling conflicts with his day job at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.

Growing up, he felt unloved by his adoptive parents and developed a discipline problem in school. By the time he scraped his way out of Bremerton High School, he was working in a restaurant and living on his own in a tiny, $300-a-month apartment. After serving in the military for 20 years, he returned to his hometown in 2006.

He was still mulling the coaching offer when he came across the movie "Facing the Giants," a Christian sports drama in which a downtrodden football team is lifted to the state championship after the coach decides to praise God on the field.

Kennedy said the film left him in tears. "I was crying my eyes out," he said. "It was a clear sign that God was calling me to coach. I had never experienced that kind of effect in my entire life. I said, 'I'm all in, God. I will give you the glory after every game right there on the 50 where we fought our battles.'"

He signed on as an assistant coach for Bremerton High's varsity team, which had won just one game the previous season. He was also head coach of the junior varsity squad. At first, he prayed alone, but after a few games some of his players asked to join in.

"I told them, 'It's a free country; this is America, you can do whatever you want,'" Kennedy said. After a while, visiting players also joined. School officials said that the activity evolved to include an inspirational talk which often contained religious references. During his postgame sessions, Kennedy would sometimes stand in the middle of a circle of players holding a helmet above his head. The prayer lasted about 30 seconds, Kennedy said, although his talks could go a bit longer.

"It was really quick because I am not a great prayer or preacher," he said. "It was really a simple thing. I'd say, 'God, thank you for these guys and the opportunity to coach them.'"

For years, no one made an issue of Kennedy's ritual. In fact, Kennedy said he got a lot of compliments, including from people who did not share his religious conviction.

Many people in Bremerton did not realize what was happening when they saw Kennedy kneel on the field, sometimes with close to half the team around him.

"We always saw players and coaches gather on the field in what looked to us like an effort to rally their spirits," said Paul Peterson, whose son, Aaron Bryce, played football at Bremerton High in 2010. "I thought they were either celebrating victory, or maybe licking their wounds. And that's all we thought was going on."

Peterson added that when he learned years later of the religious nature of the huddle, he was not happy. "My philosophy is that religious instruction is to be given by parents and it should be taught at home," he said.

The issue came to a head during the 2015 football season after an opposing coach told Bremerton's principal that Kennedy had invited his team to join a postgame prayer. Kennedy's lawyers say in legal papers that the opposing coach approved of the prayer. Still, Bremerton school officials moved to stop it.

Bremerton's athletic director made clear to Kennedy the prayers were against the rules, prompting Kennedy to post on Facebook, "I think I just might have been fired for praying" -- although at that point he was still employed. That was enough to transform Kennedy's tussle with the school into a cause célèbre. The school district received "thousands of emails, letters and phone calls from around the country" regarding Kennedy's prayers, according to court papers.

School officials sent Kennedy a letter formally alerting him to school district policy regarding religious expression. Employees had to be neutral, meaning they could not even indirectly encourage or discourage students from engaging in religious activity. The rules, they noted, were meant to comply with the school district's constitutional responsibility.

"In the public schools context, it is clear that schools and their employees may not directly prohibit students from participating in religious activities, nor may they require students to participate in religious activities," read a September 2015 letter to Kennedy from superintendent Aaron Leavell. "Further, it is equally clear that school staff may not indirectly encourage students to engage in religious activity."

If Kennedy wanted to continue praying after games, the letter concluded, he needed to do so separate from students and in a way that was not obvious to onlookers. At one point, Kennedy said, school officials offered to accommodate him at home games by allowing him to pray in the press box above the stadium's bleachers, or inside the school, which required walking several hundred yards and up several flights of steps.

Kennedy said he stopped the public prayer for one game. But as he was driving home afterward, he regretted giving in to what he saw as "pressure to break his commitment to God," his lawyers said in their Supreme Court petition. He said he turned his car around, returned to the empty stadium and with tears running down his face, delivered a silent prayer from the 50-yard line.

Soon, Kennedy retained a lawyer who sent a letter to school officials saying he was compelled to resume praying at midfield after every game. School officials said Kennedy did a series of local media interviews to publicize his decision, drawing widespread attention. After the next game, Kennedy walked to midfield for the customary handshake with the opposing team, then knelt at the 50-yard line to pray. Dozens of players, coaches and members of the public joined him on the field in support.

Outside the field, a Satanist group protested, saying it also wanted to conduct ceremonies on the field after football games.

About a week later, after again praying on the field, Kennedy was placed on leave and the school district did not rehire him for the following season. Before long, political figures and religious conservatives rallied to Kennedy's side, helping to transform him into a national avatar of religious liberty.

Cruz, who at the time was running for president, invited him to a rally within weeks of his firing. In 2016, then-presidential candidate Trump acknowledged Kennedy in the crowd at a veterans' gathering, before calling his firing "outrageous."

Kennedy said he only grudgingly embraced the high-level attention, but he felt like he had no other choice. "I hated it," he said. "It is really laughable to think this was about me and wanting some kind of praise. I want to coach football."

KENNEDY'S LEGAL FIGHT has also drawn the attention of current and former NFL players, who have weighed in on both sides.

A brief headlined by Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins supported Kennedy's argument that his prayers were private, and not the kind of government-endorsed speech that would be unconstitutional. It compared Kennedy's prayers to on-field political protests inspired by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

"If Coach Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racism during the National Anthem rather than taking a knee to pray after time expired, no one would suggest that his act was governmental speech," the brief said.

But others noted that Kennedy's prayers are not like those fans see football players engaging in after horrific injuries, or the ones led by students. His prayers, they said, could come across as coercive to impressionable high school players.

"It's deeply wrong for any coach to put high school students in the position of turning their backs on the team family if they don't want to join the coach's very public prayers on the 50-yard line after games," Chris Kluwe, a retired NFL punter and current high school football coach, said in a court brief.

Opponents of Kennedy's on-field prayers argue that displays of religion by a coach at a public school isolate players who do not share the same faith. They say Kennedy was offering an implicit invitation for his players to join in -- which was unfair to non-Christians.

"Faith is a private act that we commit to as individuals," said the Rev. Meghan Dowling, pastor of Bremerton United Methodist Church. "Coach Kennedy used his power as a school official to coerce students in public at a public high school to pray. That goes against my own conscience as an ordained pastor but also a community member."

Kennedy, however, says players joined his prayers voluntarily, and he did not in any way punish those who chose not to. One season, he said, two players adamantly objected to the prayers. "I made both of them my team captains because of that," Kennedy said. "I need leaders. I don't need a bunch of drones on the field."

As he and his supporters see it, Kennedy did not violate the First Amendment by delivering his prayers. Instead, they believe Bremerton's school system is unconstitutionally limiting his religious rights by banning them.

"Nobody should be fired from their job for just being religious," said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty Institute, a legal nonprofit representing Kennedy.

Kennedy's suit does not seek monetary damages; he simply wants his coaching job back. Two years ago, he left Bremerton to live in Pensacola, Florida, to help care for his ailing father-in-law. But he has children and grandchildren in Bremerton, and if the court rules in his favor, he says he would be back in his hometown "as soon as a plane could take me there."

Through the years, the high court has ruled against teacher-led prayer and Bible readings in public school classrooms, religious invocations at graduations, and student-led prayers at public school football games. Since Kennedy's legal battle started, lower courts have consistently ruled against him.

But many legal observers believe Kennedy has a good chance to prevail this time. The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority, and in recent years, their opinions have leaned more toward protecting religious liberty than maintaining the separation of church and state.

However the court rules, the legal battle has been worthwhile, Kennedy said. "I tell my guys you need to battle until nothing's left on the clock," he said. "I'd be the biggest hypocrite if I did anything less."