When the Bremerton High School football team takes the field tonight, the cheers won’t be for the players, or even the plays. The loudest applause will be for their coach. After a public spat over game day prayer, Joe Kennedy has picked up plenty of fans — and not just from conservatives. The former Marine has become a statewide hero after refusing to back down from his seven-year tradition of thanking God at every game. He has always made it optional for players, but they’ve wanted to join in–so much so that it has become an identifier of the team, that is until Coach Kennedy was ordered to stop praying or lose his job.
The former combat veteran refused. “As long as the kids understand that he’s doing that in his individual and private capacity, which is what he’s doing, it’s perfectly constitutional and not only that, it’s a violation of the Constitution to tell him he’s not allowed to pray,” said his Liberty Institute attorney, Hiram Sasser.
The coach gets it. Really. But he also wants to protect the other constitutional element in this discussion — freedom of religious expression.
Across party and religious lines, Americans are lining up in support of the Coach. Even “Good Morning America” took time out of their normal talk to highlight the story and the families coming to Kennedy’s defense. “I don’t understand how this could be wrong,” Kennedy told them. “I’m not establishing religion. I’m not preachy with anybody. It’s that mutual respect. They know where I stand but I’ve never asked them about theirs because it has no bearing on what we do on the football field.”
Showing the same courage he did as a Marine, Kennedy has said he plans to take his stand tonight by taking a knee. “[We’re going out to the 50 yard line], and I’m going to thank the Lord for the young men that participated and blessing me with this group of guys.”
And he’ll have plenty of broad backing when he does. In a powerful op-ed, one local non-believer fired back at this growing hostility toward religious expression. “I don’t go to church,” Matt Culkins wrote. “I don’t quote Scripture. And while I ask people for forgiveness constantly, it’s been a while since I’ve asked a higher power… So Wednesday, when I talked to a high-school football coach who, despite receiving a letter from his school district demanding that he stop, said he will continue his postgame tradition of praying at the 50-yard line, all I could think was this: “I hope my kid has a coach like that one day.”
Like most people, Culkins points out that the tradition was beloved among players and fans. “[Coach Kennedy] has never asked anyone else to partake, and he hasn’t gone out of his way to attract attention. But after a while, players took notice and decided they wanted to join. Kennedy welcomed the company… For several seasons, this scene went unobstructed. Actually, that’s the wrong word,” Culkins went on. “This scene was embraced. The midfield meeting allowed players from both teams to enjoy a moment of community after four quarters of carnage. It wasn’t just the Christian kids, either. Bremerton team captain Ethan Hacker is an agnostic who has yet to miss the postgame prayer. To him, those few minutes aren’t about a Father in Heaven — they’re about his “brothers on earth.” Even to people like Culkins, it’s obvious that (as with so many religious liberty cases), that this coach isn’t trying to force anyone to do anything — he just wants to exercise his own faith. “I tell my kids to be bold in their beliefs,” Kennedy said. “I want to set an example to stand up for what you believe in, even if it isn’t popular.” As Culkins so perfectly put it, “Like I said, I’m not really one to look to the heavens. But Joe Kennedy? It’s hard not to look up to him.”
Photo Credit Jeffrey Beall