On September 1, 2023, just seven miles from our home, Coach Joe Kennedy of the Bremerton Knights knelt silently on the fifty yard line and prayed for ten seconds after a football game.
He had been prevented from doing so for eight long years as he fought for the right to pray in public in our once faith-based nation.
I admire Coach Kennedy, though I’ve never met him. We need more people like him.
We need more average Joe’s who are committed to Jesus.
An Average Joe Committed to Jesus
I played football on the same Bremerton gridiron numerous times in school. In my last game there where I played quarterback, I did such a “good job” that Coach Ames decided to go with a “wildcat” offense in the second half–which won the game.
“Wildcat” means no quarterback–and I sat on the bench and sulked.
Little did I know that fifty years later, a brave “average Joe” would pray on the same field, be fired, then win a great victory for religious liberty
Before our game in Bremerton a generation ago, our team prayed in the locker room before taking the field. We did that before every game during the 1970’s–at the largest public high school in the state.
But over decades, the people of God began losing faith-based freedom in our nation–which was the exceptionalness and brilliance of the American experiment in liberty.
Two weeks ago, “average” Joe Kennedy knelt to rescue us.
Coach Joe Kennedy’s prayer was the culmination of a an eight year battle that ended in victory at the Supreme Court. Kennedy told the Daily Signal:
“I used to run marathons quite a bit and you never think you’re going to get to the end, and when you finally see that finish line… that’s what tonight was. We finished the race and we did it together and there’s nothing better than keeping the faith throughout that.”
When asked what he prayed for, Kennedy responded:
“I said ‘thank you’ probably 30 times. “I had no other words. What do you say to the one who got me here to begin with? It was just, ‘thank you,’ and I had nothing else to say to Him. I’ve never been great at prayers but I was just so thankful for being part of this, it was just awesome.”
Kennedy, now 54 years old, lost his assistant football coaching job in Bremerton in 2015 after he refused to stop praying after football games. The school fired him, and he took them to task–all the way up to the United States Supreme Court.
Throughout the court battles, Kennedy insisted all he wanted to do was coach young men and give thanks to God for them. Many football players began voluntarily joining him after games.
Similarly, after NFL contests, many coaches and players go to center of the field, kneel down, and thank God for the opportunity. Coach Kennedy did the same on high school turf.
He told the press after praying on the field two weeks ago:
“There is nothing better than America and the Constitution. Our legal victory proves that the U.S. Constitution is alive and well.”
After Kennedy’s multi-year legal battle wound its way through the courts, on June 15, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in his favor. The court held that Coach Kennedy’s prayer was doubly protected by both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment.
Part of the Court’s reasoning was that if a coach is free to take 30 seconds after a game for other personal activities, such as taking a phone call, then he must be allowed to use that time to kneel in prayer. The school district could no longer single out religious expression for uniquely disfavored treatment. Justice Gorsuch wrote:
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal…The Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike…That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent.”
Bremerton parent Jeremy McCrimmon, who has two children attending Bremerton High, commented:
“As far as I’m concerned that’s a constitutional right. Coach Kennedy fought for that and he won at the highest court in the nation and we definitely need to protect the rights of Americans.”
Because of the legal victory, First Liberty Institute started a new initiative this fall called the First Freedom Challenge which encourages coaches, players, parents and fans all over the country to pray after football games.
I hope scores of millions will join them across America this season.
During the long legal battle, Joe Kennedy and his wife moved to Florida to care for an ailing parent. I can relate. Shirley and I cared for her ninety-something mother in our home for five years during the same period that Coach Kennedy was fighting for freedom.
I can’t imagine doing both acts of service to God at the same time.
So why did average Joe Kennedy take on the behemoth of public school religious discrimination in America? His answer:
“Those prayers I prayed on the 50-yard line after the Bremerton High School football games were never for attention, and certainly never to proselytize impressionable minors. As a 20-year Marine Corps veteran who fought in the first Gulf War, I simply took issue with my constitutional rights being assaulted—the rights I had risked my life to support and defend against when I took my oath of enlistment.”
That right comes from the uniqueness of the American Constitution. We value true freedom because it is a gift from God. Our dollar bills and coins remind us, “In God We Trust.”
A week after Joe Kennedy helped restore the right to pray in public, he resigned from his position as an assistant football coach. In his resignation letter, he stated:
“It is apparent that my 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…Bremerton’s football coaches, players, and parents have been such a blessing. I feel it is in everyone’s best interest I step back from coaching.”
“We’ll make some decisions of what’s next in our life, because obviously it’s not going to be football forever. We’d like to do—I don’t know—maybe some ministry or something. “I’m going to do whatever God tells me to do…Hey, we ‘finished the fight.’ You know, we were in the race to finish the fight, and we’ve remained faithful, and that’s it.”
If you want to refresh your memory on Coach Kennedy’s courageous battle, you can watch it below.
Though he will not be coaching this fall, Kennedy will be busy, as a book telling his story, “Average Joe: The Coach Joe Kennedy Story,” is due out on Oct. 24. A movie about his life, also called “Average Joe,” is in production by GND Media Group.
We need a generation of “average Joes” to rise up and bring a revival of faith and freedom to America. An average Joe is passionately committed to Jesus–a “nobody” who does what’s right for God at any cost.
How about you?