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Fresh off a Supreme Court Win, the Praying Coach Takes the Field Julia Duin

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Joe Kennedy will appear tonight at his first game since his reinstatement as an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School. (All photos by David Ryder for The Free Press)

It’s a clear day at Bremerton High School on Washington State’s Kitsap Peninsula. Down by the athletic field, surrounded by a rust-red track and rows of bright blue bleachers, you can see the smoky outlines of the Olympic Mountains to the west. And standing on the gridiron, tossing footballs to teenage players, one man is warming up for redemption.

Joe Kennedy—also known as the “praying coach”—is back as an assistant coach for the first time since the Supreme Court ruled that the Bremerton School District in Kitsap County had violated his religious freedom.

Kennedy had been praying on the 50-yard line after every game for seven years—first on his own, later surrounded by players—when suddenly the school told him to stop in 2015. After he refused, he was put on leave. That’s when he sued, sparking an epic legal battle that finally ended in 2022 with his 6–3 Supreme Court win. The Bremerton School District also awarded Kennedy a $1.7 million settlement and gave him back his old job one year after the ruling. 

All the publicity has turned Kennedy into a minor celebrity, with a YouTube mini-documentary currently out, an autobiography—Average Joe—publishing in October, and a feature film now in production. Tonight, on September 1, his first return game—against Mount Douglas Secondary School of Saanich, British Columbia—is expected to attract 5,000 people, not to mention others across the country who have signed up to (virtually) “commit to take a knee in prayer with Coach Kennedy.”

Wearing black sneakers, gray shorts, a royal blue Bremerton Knights sports shirt, and a cross around his neck that says simply “Coach,” Kennedy, 54, shrugs off the idea that his case has made history.

“I am probably just a footnote. Americans, their memories are short-lived,” he told me.

But he admits the decision is a big deal for people of faith in this country.

“The way the Supreme Court ruled gives all Americans—not just the ones here in Bremerton—but across Washington and across the United States a huge win for religious liberty,” he added.

“That’s all religious liberty, not just Christians. This applies to Jews and Muslims, you name it. Pick a group, they all have the exact same freedom as I do now, and they can do that in the public square.”

Being back on the football field “is really weird,” Kennedy tells The Free Press, even though some of his players “come up and say, ‘You did the right thing, Coach.’ ”

But the school hasn’t offered Kennedy a complete reset. While in the past, players on both sides voluntarily worshipped alongside the coach on the field, this year, the Bremerton School District has put in place a new policy mandating that all students must stay 25 feet away when he kneels to pray. No spectators will be allowed on the field either.

Kennedy is already agitating over the new rules.

“It’s like a bubble—they are trying to keep people away from prayer and me from everybody else,” he told me. “I am not abiding by that.”

Kennedy is used to fighting. He grew up in blue-collar Bremerton (“a low-budget town,” he quips) before serving 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps and retiring in 2006. He’d always been religious, so after he was appointed an assistant coach at Bremerton in 2008, he started walking onto the 50-yard line after each game, sinking to one knee, and “giving thanks” for typically no more than 30 seconds

Soon, his players were asking to join. They, in turn, invited players from opposing teams. Kennedy has always insisted that he never coerced any players into joining him on the field.

“I’ve had 60 kids per team,” he told me in a past interview. “If anyone felt pressured, no one ever said that.” 

It wasn’t until September 2015 when the school district finally got wind of the prayer sessions, after an opposing coach congratulated Bremerton’s principal for allowing such a public display of faith.

Fearing they’d be seen as endorsing in-school prayer and “exposing the District to significant risk of liability,” as a letter by then-superintendent Aaron Leavell stated, school officials ordered Kennedy to pray elsewhere. A curtained-off spot in the press box and a room hundreds of feet away in the school building were offered as possibilities. 

That’s when Kennedy called the First Liberty Institute, a legal powerhouse out of Plano, Texas, which told him he had a constitutional right to express his religion.

And so, the praying coach refused to stop praying.

Kennedy says his win is a win for people of all faiths. “This applies to Jews and Muslims, you name it. Pick a group, they have the exact same freedom as I do now.”

At the same time, local TV crews got wind of the controversy and began showing up at the games. So did a local state rep. So did a group of Satanists, who briefly showed up outside the fence encircling the stadium. A crowd of students climbed the fence, tossed liquid at the black-robed protesters and chanted “Jesus” at them until they left.

Each time Kennedy knelt on the field to pray during three home games in October 2015, more players and members of the public crowded around him in support, at one point knocking down students in their rush to hit the field. Finally, the district put its foot down. They told Kennedy to stop. And when he refused again, he was put on paid administrative leave on October 28. 

By then, his story was national news. Many Americans, including 47 members of Congress who sent a letter of support to the district on his behalf, felt Kennedy’s punishment didn’t fit the crime.

That December, Kennedy filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against the school district, and the following year, he sued, saying it had infringed upon his First Amendment rights. 

Suddenly, Kennedy’s cause was no longer just about religion, but free expression, and it intersected with the much more visible case of Colin Kaepernick. 

In September 2016, Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback, started kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. 

Just as Kennedy proved divisive, so too did Kaepernick. Just as Kennedy was pushing back against an encroaching illiberalism on the left, Kaepernick was pushing back against the illiberalism of the right. Even though the two came from wildly different backgrounds with polar opposite worldviews, they were aligned in this respect. Their fight was that of the individual insisting on being heard—even if the crowd didn’t want to listen. It’s a parallel that Kennedy himself acknowledges, albeit begrudgingly.

“I support his right,” Kennedy said of Kaepernick. “But that doesn’t mean I like it.” 

Bremerton High School will now allow Kennedy to pray on the 50-yard line after games as long as players keep a 25-foot distance from him.

Lori Windham, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm in Washington, D.C. that protects free expression of religion, noted that even though both men were kneeling, Kaepernick’s actions were seen as a more acceptable expression of the First Amendment than Kennedy’s.

“One of the big problems in this case is that kneeling in prayer was seen as coercive, but other expressions—a high five, a political protest—were seen as okay,” she said. 

“Religious freedom means you’ll see other peoples’ religious expression. The Bremerton School District didn’t seem to think people had that right. In the past, religious speech was treated as uniquely dangerous and school officials thought they’d be sued if they allowed it. It was treated as asbestos; something from a past era you needed to cover up. 

“People need to be able to express their religion at work without getting punished, including kneeling in prayer after a game. When there’s free speech, you’re going to see things you disagree with.” 

Kennedy’s lawsuit—Kennedy v. Bremerton School District—bounced among various courts for years. In the meantime, Kennedy and his wife, Denise, were faced with a family emergency. Her elderly father in Pensacola, Florida, was seriously ill, so the couple sold their home in nearby Port Orchard in 2020 and bought one in the Sunshine State, where they now live. Kennedy has temporarily relocated back to Bremerton for the 2023 season, bunking with family and friends for the next few months and keeping a low profile. “I haven’t been out in town at all,” he told me.

He has also left his church—Newlife South Kitsap in Port Orchard—chiefly because then-school superintendent Leavell also attended the congregation.

Because Kennedy moved to Florida in 2020, he is staying with friends and family in Bremerton during the new football season.

The pastors at the church “kind of distanced themselves from the very beginning,” Kennedy said. They met with Kennedy and Leavell separately “and asked if we could get along and work this out. They didn’t want to choose sides.”

Though Kennedy said he wasn’t fully supported by his church, he feels “bad” for Leavell and his kids, because “they were asked, ‘Why doesn’t your dad like praying?’ and ‘Why don’t they like Christians?’ ”

People, Kennedy said, “don’t understand this was a big political and Constitutional thing.”

Kennedy said he and his wife have been “spiritually homeless” since 2020. 

“I don’t go to church a whole lot,” he admits. 

(Requests for comment to Jonathan Stone, pastor of Newlife, and to Leavell, who has since moved to a new job, went unanswered.)

As Kennedy awaited a legal decision, he earned an MBA in aerospace defense from the University of Tennessee–Knoxville to give himself more career options. By the time the Supreme Court accepted his case in January 2022, eight current and former NFL players had filed a brief on his behalf.

Led by quarterback Nick Foles, who drove the Philadelphia Eagles to their first-ever Super Bowl victory in 2017, the players stated they had exercised their “constitutional right to pray before, during, and after games” in high school or college and they “can testify firsthand to the power of prayer—in generating gratitude for the opportunity to play, promoting high ideals of sportsmanship, protecting the safety of those who take the field, bridging personal, political, and racial divides among players, and ultimately in glorifying God.” 

Finally, on June 27, 2022, in an opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the high court said “the Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates” the kind of discrimination shown by the Bremerton School District.

Kennedy’s lawyers had successfully argued that his wish to pray privately in view of students does not violate the federal ruling against school-sponsored prayer. Rather, the judgment upholds the right of public employees to exercise their faith through private acts of religious activity on the job.

After I emailed and called school officials for comment, I was sent a set of media guidelines, which included a statement that the district “will fully comply with the 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.”

“When I feel the time is right, I’ll take the knee at the 50 and give thanks,” Kennedy said of his plans after tonight’s game. “I might have an emotional moment.”

Today, Kennedy’s scrub-brush hair is grayer, there are more wrinkles on his face, and he has gained 50 pounds, which he said he hopes to work off. 

Being back on the football field “is really weird,” he says. “I don’t talk to the kids about anything [to do with the case]. Some come up and say, ‘You did the right thing, Coach,’ or ‘That was awesome.’ ”

He said he initially noticed a chill among the staff. “The coaches were pretty standoffish at first,” he said, “but as I introduced myself, they warmed up. We have one thing in mind: the young men.”

Although Kennedy and his wife have three children and two grandchildren in the area, he’s vague about moving back. His final negotiated settlement amount of $1.7 million is a long way from the $5.5 million in legal fees First Liberty originally demanded from the school district. Kennedy said he agreed to settle for less to save the district money, even though he didn’t get a penny, not even back pay (his salary at Bremerton is now $5,304 a year). 

Still, “it wasn’t about that,” he said. “It had to do with the First Amendment and the Constitution.” 

Has he lost money?

“Oh, yeah,” he replied. “Flying up here is not cheap. Going to court so many times; it’s been tough. But we’re making it. There are a lot of gracious people in the world who have helped out.” Fees from speaking engagements have been a real help, he added, and of course there’s revenue from the book and the movie to come.

But ultimately, his victory isn’t about fame or money or revenge or even vindication. It’s about being back with his team for the season opener, and at the end of the game, being able to kneel down in prayer and express his gratitude to God. 

Tonight, Kennedy said, he’ll do what he’s always done—until he was forced to fight for the right to do it.

“When I feel the time is right, I’ll take the knee at the 50 and give thanks. I might have an emotional moment,” he said, before adding with a wink, “I may take more than 30 seconds.”

Julia Duin is a reporter based in Washington State. Read her last Free Press article, “Welcome to Dark Sky Country,” here. Follow her on Twitter (now X) @juliaduin.

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Abigail Shrier: California’s New Law Lets Schools Keep Secrets from Parents Abigail Shrier

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Protests at a Chino Valley Board of Education meeting on gender policy on July 20, 2023, in Chino, California. (Photo by David McNew via Getty Images)

Child predators follow a common playbook: target the victim, gain their trust, fill a need, and, crucially, isolate the child from her parents. For several years, this has also been standard California state protocol with regard to schoolchildren questioning their gender identities. On Monday, this scheme became law.

The “SAFETY Act,” AB 1955, signed by California Democratic governor Gavin Newsom, legally forbids schools from adopting any policy that would force them to disclose “any information related to a pupil’s sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression to any other person without the pupil’s consent.” Schools may not, as a matter of policy, inform parents of a child’s new gender identity unless the child volunteers her approval. The law also prohibits schools from punishing any school employee found to have “supported a pupil” hurtling down a path toward risky and irreversible hormones and surgeries.

The law effectively shuts down the local parents’ rights movement in California by eliminating its most important tool: the ability to organize at the community level to stop schools from deceiving them. No longer can families hope to convince their school boards to require schools to notify parents that their daughter, Sophie, has been going by “Sebastian” in class; that her teacher, school counselor, and principal have all been celebrating Sebastian’s transgender identity; that they’ve been letting her use the boys’ bathroom and reifying the sense that she is “really a boy.” 

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the law supports the priming of minor children for a secret life with a new gender identity. This includes having school-aged children participate in sexualized discussions and make identity declarations with school faculty, which are often actively hidden from the child’s parents. Elon Musk called the law “the final straw” for families and announced his intention to move both SpaceX and X, two of California’s most prominent tech companies, out of the state as a result. “The goal [of] this diabolical law,” he tweeted, “is to break the parent-child relationship and put the state in charge of your children.”

While researching my book, Irreversible Damage, and in the four years since its publication, I have talked to hundreds of parents whose daughters suddenly identified as transgender. Many of their daughters were encouraged in this revelation by school counselors and teachers in school districts across America. One parent told me a California school counselor had given her son the address of an LGBTQ youth shelter and suggested he emancipate himself from parents who were loving but skeptical of his sudden transgender identity. Another recent California law, AB 665, would have made reclaiming that young man from the youth center all but impossible because he was over the age of twelve.

In California, instruction in sexual orientation and gender identity has been mandatory for all public school students K–12 since the passage of the Healthy Youth Act in 2016. Because such instruction typically occurs within the required “anti-bullying curriculum” rather than the sex education curriculum, parents cannot elect that their children opt out of what is, in practice, a full-bore indoctrination into gender ideology. 

When a child then predictably decides in class that she too may be nonbinary or transgender, this revelation will often trigger schools’ gender support plan, effectively a school-wide conspiracy to promote the child’s new name and gender identity without tipping off Mom and Dad. Official documents and emails and report cards are sent to parents to preserve the child’s birth name and pronouns, concealing the social transition from parents. 

I have talked to parents who discovered their middle-school daughters had spent the better part of an entire academic year known to the entire school as “Spencer” or “Ethan.” One of these girls had even roomed with the boys on an overnight school trip.

I have investigated many cases in which social transitions were concealed from families. In no case did the girl flourish with this new identity. Maintaining a new, secret identity more often became a weight and burden to the girls. Inexplicably to the parents, their daughters became morose, dropped activities they once loved, wore baggier clothing, and begged to cut their hair shorter. The parents became desperate and unsure of what to do. The hidden transition resulted in children’s alienation from loving parents trying to protect them. 

But in the years since I first reported on this practice, political opposition has grown. Parents whose daughters were socially transitioned behind their backs have filed lawsuits against the school districts in California and Florida and Michigan. California public school teachers have sued school districts to block policies that could result in their firing if they inform parents that their children’s names and identities have been changed behind their backs. And a recent statewide initiative in California to require parental notification before a school changes a child’s gender identity as well as ban puberty blockers and gender surgeries for minors garnered over 400,000 signatures, falling just short of making it onto the ballot. 

The SAFETY Act would significantly stymie, if not eliminate, this local pushback to the increasingly unpopular practice of schools playing adoptive parents with other people’s children. (Although already, the Chino Valley Unified School District has filed suit against Newsom over this act.) The plain text of the California law claims that it merely prevents schools from adopting policies that “forcibly out” trans kids—as if confused fifth-grade girls are in the same position as closeted gay adults in decades past who risked arrest and firing for being outed. 

The law’s clever sponsors are typically quiet on the subject of “outing” to whom. The entire school already knows that Lily is now “Tyler.” Teachers will cheerfully share that information with each other, school mental health staff, administrators, and other students. The only ones who don’t get to know are the parents.

A favorite talking point of activists on the left is that with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity, schools must keep secrets with young children to protect them from transphobic and homophobic parents. Even in the most progressive of states, the claim that parents who discover that their child is transgender might abuse or kick her out is used to justify a policy that would otherwise be difficult to understand and impossible to justify.

Aurora Regino is a single mother in California who last year sued the Chico Unified School District for secretly pushing social transition on her then–11-year-old daughter. Regino told me that the “phobia” rationale seemed “ridiculous.” She added, “How is it not outing a kid if you’re telling an entire school that they’re a different sex? That’s outing right there. So everybody knows except the parents? That doesn’t really make any sense to me.”

Erin Friday, a California attorney and author of bills in several states requiring parental notification for any change in a child’s gender identity at school, vented exasperation at the idea that California parents are so homophobic or transphobic they cannot be trusted. “This is California, for crying out loud.”

Regino agreed. “Both my girls are very active. We do swimming, theater, soccer, softball. We are in connection with I don’t know how many families. And there’s not one family that I can think of that we are around that would kick out their kid because they thought that they were ‘nonbinary’ or trans or gay,” she said. “I mean, to me, that’s an extreme statement that these kids are going to get kicked out. Are we saying one in ten thousand? So we’re going to risk the rest of the children and separate them from their parents during the time that they need them the most?” Her now–13-year-old daughter no longer wants to be a boy.

One might think Newsom would realize that a policy this unpopular for Democrats could easily become a political albatross in an election year. Perhaps realizing this, the governor—who is frequently mentioned as a possible 2024 presidential candidate if Biden drops out—when defending the bill resorts to dissembling. On Wednesday, the governor’s press office declared on X that the bill “protects the child-parent relationship by PREVENTING politicians & school staff from inappropriately intervening in family matters & attempting to control if, when & how families have deeply personal conversations.” The bill only “protects” the parent-child relationship if you assume that relationship depends on the parents’ being entirely ignorant of their child’s growing attachment to this new, secret identity.

Governor Newsom also declared: “Under California law, minors CANNOT legally change their name or gender WITHOUT parental consent.” That’s placing a lot of weight on the word legally. The obscurantist governor is correct only in the most technical sense: yes, a child’s legal name can be changed only on official records with parental approval. But in the world of the SAFETY Act, the parents may be the only ones in a child’s life who use that name. 

In the past few years, moderates across the American political spectrum have awakened to the pernicious effects of gender ideology on children. England, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have, in recent years, warned the public of the risks of pediatric gender medicine, banned the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones in children, or restricted their use to research settings. The Cass Review, published this year by one of England’s premier physicians, noted the serious risks and specious benefits of pediatric gender transition. My own investigation, published four years earlier, reached the same conclusions. The Cass Review also acknowledged that social transition is an active intervention that puts many children on an inexorable path to medical transition. 

Recent polling shows that voters across the political spectrum believe that schools should be required to inform parents if their children are using different gender pronouns at school than they are at home.

But California Democrats appear ready to drag their party down with them. Parents’ best hope may be federal legislation mandating parental notification before a school can reassign a child’s name and gender. Candidates for president and vice president ought to be asked whether they would support such a bill.

Until her daughter was socially transitioned behind her back, Regino had been a lifelong progressive Democrat. “Now, I’m a registered Republican,” she said.

Abigail Shrier is the New York Times bestselling author of Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up

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Disenchanted with Democrats: The Black Voters Going for Trump Bari Weiss

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For the past few decades, it’s been conventional wisdom in D.C. that “demographics are destiny.” That the increased share of immigrants, young people, and racial minorities across the country would build a bulletproof coalition for the Democratic Party, swelling their ranks and keeping them in power forever.

Those who deviated from this expectation could expect to be called sellouts, race traitors, and Uncle Toms. Recall Joe Biden’s infamous interview with radio host Charlamagne tha God, when he said: “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or for Trump, then you ain’t black.”

But in the past year, Donald Trump has been winning over more minority voters than any Republican in decades. Recent polls have consistently shown that Trump has reached a shocking 20 percent support among black voters. That’s compared to the 8 percent he got in 2016. And Biden’s polling with black voters has dropped dramatically.

This is a monumental, and to many, unexpected turn. And it was noticeable at the RNC. When Michael Moynihan went to the 2016 Republican Convention in Cleveland, the audience was more monochromatic. While certainly not as racially diverse as the Democratic coalition, the convention in Milwaukee felt younger and less white.

Monday night, Amber Rose opened the proceedings. Tuesday night, Madeline Brame, the mother of a murdered veteran, gave a thunderous speech explaining why she’s supporting Trump. She said: “Our eyes have been opened, just like so many other poor minorities across America. Donald Trump shares our values, love of God and family and country. He’s been a victim of the same corrupt system that I have been and my family has been.”

What’s behind this shift? Why do Biden and the Democratic Party seem to be losing their edge with black voters? And could this end up making a real difference for the 2024 election?

Last night, Michael Moynihan went to an event at the RNC put on by the Black Conservative Federation to ask them why they think that MAGA conservatism is appealing to black voters.

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July 17, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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