Lawyers for a high school football school who lost his job after repeatedly praying on the touchline with students have insisted he does want his position back even though he has not yet filled in the required paperwork and has been busy speaking on the “conservative celebrity circuit”.
Joe Kennedy, 53, made international headlines this summer after the conservative US Supreme Court ruled in his favour when he argued that school officials in Washington state had violated his right to free speech under the First Amendment.
“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse republic – whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head,” wrote Justice Neal Gorsuch, nominated by Donald Trump, and who authored the court’s 6-3 majority opinion in June.
Yet three months after the court decision, which included a determination that Bremerton Schools District, near Seattle, should give Kennedy his job back, officials say he has not filled in the requirement paperwork they have sent him, even as the school year has started, and The Knights, which he spent several years coaching, have already played two games with no sign of him.
Those who say Kennedy was more interested in being part of a broader push for so-called religious freedom, allege he never wanted his job back and had moved his family to Florida.
Others point out he has been busy speaking at various conservative events, and during the second game when The Knights won, Kennedy was one of Trump’s guests at the Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey, where the former president received a religions award from a group called the American Cornerstone Institute, presented to him by Dr Ben Carson.
“On August 8, we started the employee onboarding process and Mr Kennedy’s attorneys were sent all of the employment forms that all District coaches must complete before working with students,” says the Bremerton School District, in response to a question from The Independent.
“At that time, we also informed Mr Kennedy (through his attorneys) that he could contact our Human Resources Department directly to request assistance he might need in filling out the forms and reporting for work.”
It says it “anticipated Mr Kennedy would return the forms, complete the training required of all Bremerton School District coaches, and report to the head football coach in time for the first day of practice for the new season, which began on August 17.”.
It adds: “To date, Mr. Kennedy has not returned the forms, has not contacted our HR department or anybody else at the District for assistance, and has not shown up for work. We have informed Mr Kennedy, through his lawyers, that we are ready to hire him and have him fulfill the duties of an assistant Bremerton High School football coach as soon as he completes the steps and training required of all District coaching staff.”
Kennedy’s lawyers insist that he does want to return to work. They point out that several issues, including who pays various attorneys fees, and critically what arrangements the school will make to enable the coach to pray while continuing to coach, have not been settled. That issue is currently before a federal court in the third district.
Lawyer Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, a Christian rights group that represented Kennedy, says since the court’s judgment, lawyers have been in regular contact with the school district.
“We wanted to find a way to sit down and negotiate. We wanted to find a way for coach to rejoin the coaching staff in the least disruptive way possible,” Sasser says.
He says the school district did not wish to meet in person – something apparently supported by an email its lawyers sent him – and that multiple issues remain unresolved.
Asked why Kennedy has not gone ahead and filled out the forms they were sent to him by the school district, Sasser says “He can’t fill out the forms and go through that process until there’s a final order in the case, about the relief describing exactly precisely what is protected [by the SCOTUS ruling], so that he can go out on the 50-yard line and pray by himself, how long can that can be? All those things have to be specified in the order.”
He says the order could be settled by the court, in which case Kennedy would seek the “maximum relief possible”, or else both sides could come together and agree to something.
He adds: “He wants his job back. Of course, he wants his job back. We just have to wait until we get our final order in place. And then then he gets his job.”
Coach removed for praying on football field says constitution should apply
Would it not be better Mr Kennedy to be on the touchline cheering on the students, rather than delivering speeches to conservative associations?
“I totally agree with that. And I think that is where we are headed, but the problem is we don’t even have a final word,” says Sasser.
The case of the high school coach, who served 20 years in the US Marines Corps, took on a much broader significance that a simple battle between a coach and a school district.
For decades, US schools have been sensitive about being seen to encourage prayers in school, as it had been deemed in breach of the First Amendment’s so-called establishment clause, that states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The school district also insisted that it had never actually fired the coach: it said he had been placed on paid administrative leave in 2015, and that he never reapplied for his job, and moved away from the area.
About 10 leaders of various faiths from Bremerton had supported the school district, arguing that the only way to ensure religious freedom for everyone, was not give special treatment for any particular religion.
People argued that because a high school coach can hold a very influential position over young people, students may have felt obliged to pray with Kennedy even if they did not wish to, for fear of falling out his favour.
As it was, the ruling by the solidly conservative court came just days after it overturned Roe v Wade, another decades-long precedent that jolted the nation when it was scrapped.
When Kennedy appeared at events with Trump and others, some suggested he was more interested in becoming a celebrity that returning to coaching.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group that represented Bremerton School District in court, says: “The latest chapter in this seven-year saga makes clear that for Kennedy and his lawyers, this case was about pushing coercive prayer into public schools and undermining church-state separation – not about a coach regaining his position.”
Kennedy has certainly been busy in the months since the court ruling.
His Facebook page shows him speaking to conservative groups across the country, and travelling to Alaska where he was a guest of pastor Franklin Graham, son of the late evangelical icon Billy Graham, who wrote: “What a great warrior for God’s kingdom. Joe was fired from his job as a high school football coach in Washington for praying on the football field. I know that he deeply appreciates everyone who has prayed for him during this ordeal and legal proceedings”
A recent column in the Seattle Times that Kennedy was asked about on his Facebook page, says of the case: “The now-famous coach is out on the conservative celebrity circuit, continuing to tell a story about “the prayer that got me fired — even though Bremerton never actually fired him.”
Kennedy did not respond to a question from The Independent.
In another post, he wrote: “I’m so excited to speak at the Texas Faith, Family & Freedom Forum put on my Texas Values this Friday! If you’re in the Austin area, I’d love to see you there.”
Kennedy was asked about the article in the Seattle Times, and one poster, Dan DeMeno, asked: “Your old team is playing, and the district has sent you reinstatement paperwork. Could it be you were always more interested in being a conservative martyr, and enjoying all the monetary gains that come with it all along?”
“No”, said the former coach. “The judge has not approved it yet.”
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