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High school football coach who was fired for praying with his students wins $2M lawsuit

By Ben Marquis
|
March 21, 2023

High school football coach Joseph Kennedy won a Supreme Court decision in 2022 against the Washington state school district that had suspended him in 2015 over his post-game prayer routine at midfield.

It has now been announced that the board overseeing Bremerton School District has approved a nearly $2 million settlement with Kennedy to cover his attorney costs and legal fees incurred in the years-long court battle, the Daily Mail reported.

The settlement comes as Kennedy will resume his part-time job as an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School for the 2023 season and receive a $5,304 stipend.

Court ruled in favor of coach's midfield prayers

SCOTUSblog reported in June 2022 that the Supreme Court had ruled 6-3 that the First Amendment covered and protected Coach Kennedy's post-game prayer routine and rejected the school district's argument that the prayers violated the Constitution's establishment clause.

So long as students weren't coerced or required to participate in the prayers, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion that "learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is 'part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,' a trait of character essential to 'a tolerant citizenry.'"

That decision reversed a 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of the district's punitive decision to suspend and not rehire Kennedy because of his continued private prayers in a public setting at midfield after a game's conclusion.

District will "fully comply" with court's order

According to The Seattle Times, the five-member Bremerton School Board voted unanimously on Thursday to approve a settlement in the amount of $1,775,000 to cover Kennedy's attorneys' fees.

The settlement followed an agreement to allow Kennedy to be rehired and resume his coaching duties at the school in the upcoming football season.

The district issued a press release on Friday to announce the board's unanimous decision on the settlement and that the district would "fully comply with Supreme Court’s order to treat Mr. Kennedy’s personal religious conduct the same way the district treats all other personal conduct by coaches at football games."

District anxious to move "past the distraction" of lawsuit

That said, the district's release also seemed to hint that it still believed it was in the right and appeared to cast blame upon Kennedy and his attorneys for dragging the legal fight out into a multi-year affair.

"The school district offered repeatedly to accommodate Mr. Kennedy’s desire to pray, as long as he was not delivering prayers to students or coercing students to join him," the statement from Board President Alyson Rotter said. "Mr. Kennedy’s lawyers refused to accept any resolution that didn’t include Mr. Kennedy praying in a way that involved students."

That said, Rotter concluded, "We look forward to moving past the distraction of this nearly 8-year legal battle so that our school community can focus on what matters most: providing our children the best education possible."

Can finally return to coaching

At the time of the Supreme Court's ruling in his favor, Coach Kennedy, who was represented by First Liberty Institute, said, "This is just so awesome. All I’ve ever wanted was to be back on the field with my guys. I am incredibly grateful to the Supreme Court, my fantastic legal team, and everyone who has supported us. I thank God for answering our prayers and sustaining my family through this long battle."

MyNorthwest reported that it had been revealed just days prior to the announcement of the settlement that Kennedy had been formally reinstated to his prior position on March 8 and would officially rejoin the team for spring football in the coming months.

The Seattle Times report confirmed that all of Kennedy's human resources paperwork had been completed and that his contract would be approved by the board during an August 3 meeting.

In the meantime, Kennedy will be included in all staff communications and activities ahead of the next season that begins in mid-August.

Hiram Sasser, the executive general counsel for First Liberty, told the Times, "We are thrilled that Bremerton and Coach Kennedy are back together and we hope they go undefeated."