Average Joe: One Man’s Faith and the Fight to Change a Nation

Joe KennedyBy Joe Kennedy16 Minutes

Excerpt taken from Average Joe: One Man’s Faith and the Fight to Change a Nation by Joe Kennedy


In the 2021–22 session, approximately six thousand cases were appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. Of those, only sixty-six were accepted. Mine was one of them—and even more extraordinarily, it would be the second time it had come before the Court.

I’d been fighting for my religious freedom since 2015. When my attorneys called in January 2019 to inform me that the Supreme Court had denied the writ to hear our case, I thought that fight had come to an end. Instead, the justices did an unheard-of thing by attaching a statement telling us what we needed to do in order to get them to hear the case later. In all the years my legal team had been practicing law (which is an absurdly long time if you add it all up—more than a century, collectively), they had never seen this happen. I should have played the lottery that day, with my luck! Usually, the Court just denies your case without any explanation, and that’s that. It’s over. In my case, they not only gave us a lifeline but a roadmap of what we needed to do for next time.

My next time came in May 2022. I climbed the thirty-six steps to the Supreme Court building proudly wearing my blue Bremerton High School football polo shirt with my wife—the love of my life, Denise—by my side. Eight football seasons in the making, we were finally about to have our day in court.

I gave Denise a kiss and posed for the dozens of photographers that had accumulated at a socially acceptable distance. As my attorney went into the historic courthouse, I was ushered across the street to a conference room where I would listen to my own trial on C-SPAN. That’s right: After eight football seasons spent in litigation and two trips to the Supreme Court, I was not allowed to attend my own hearing due to COVID-19 restrictions. Instead, I listened from a block away as my fate was decided by people who did not really know me despite all the briefs that had been prepared and evidence collected.

As I clutched Denise’s hand and did my best to decipher the endless stream of legalese being exchanged between the attorneys and justices, I couldn’t help but reflect on the crazy journey that had landed me here.

I was the kid nobody wanted. I had been given up for adoption at birth, was always getting into fights, was expelled from six different schools, and was sent to several foster homes and group homes before being sent away to a state-run boys’ home. I barely graduated high school with a .4 GPA before joining the military at seventeen. I fought in Kuwait and have been married three times. I proposed to Denise when I first laid eyes on her at the age of nine. It was one of those Hollywood rom-com moments in which time slowed down as she looked up at me with her big brown eyes as I got off my BMX bike. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, and I knew she was and would always be the first and only love of my life. It would take thirty-something years for us to finally end up together—and the case that had brought me here had almost cost me that.

When people ask why I almost gave up the love of my life to fight for prayer in schools, it’s because Denise had been my own answer to prayer. I had cried out to God to bring us together. When she had a mini-stroke, I retired from my twenty-year career in the Marines the next day so I could be there for her. When the post-stroke depression she struggled with was damaging our relationship, I stood at the altar of our church and solemnly promised God that I would obey Him no matter what if He would just save our marriage. I didn’t think He’d take that promise so literally. It’s hilarious that God picked me, of all people, to become the face of prayer in school, but when I felt that my right to religious expression was being taken away and nobody else would stand up for it, I did what I had trained my whole life to do: I fought.

I did not anticipate that my long-suffering wife, who had been a devout Christian her entire life while I went through “phases” of dedicating myself to God, would misunderstand that fight. She didn’t understand why I was so adamant about fighting the school district, yet it was impossible for me, at that time, to explain that it was because of the bargain I had made with God for our marriage. I had finally gone “all in” for God and now it felt like He was using me as a modern-day Job from the Bible. I had lost the coaching job that was my life—my calling!—because I took a knee in prayer on the fifty-yard line after every football game. In doing this, I had put Denise between a rock and a hard place. In addition to standing behind me as her husband, she also happened to be the head of the Bremerton (Washington) School District human resources department—the very entity that had fired me for praying. She was put in the horrible position of being asked to leave school board meetings regarding my case because the school district saw she had a conflict of interest—and I couldn’t discuss my case with her, either, because my lawyers saw it the same way. She received death threats and emails saying she should burn in Hell because of what I’d done. As a result, she became withdrawn and severely depressed. Meanwhile, I lived with the constant pain of being away from the kids on my team, losing my position and purpose as a coach, and now losing my wife.

The marriage I had surrendered to God was now on the rocks. I was about to leave Denise to spare her further pain. She had faced enough pain, and I could not put her through any more of it. After months of silence, merely coexisting as roommates in the same household, things finally came to a head. After failing to satisfy her question of “Why?” yet again, I grabbed my keys with every intention of giving her space to heal from me. I hadn’t packed a bag or made any plans; I was just going to get in my truck and drive.

As I left her in tears on the bed, I got a text. I’ll never forget how annoyed I was that someone had texted me in that exact moment, when my whole world seemed to be falling apart. When I looked at my phone to see who had texted me, a video message began to play. Instantly, my knees went out from under me as I fell down our steps, sobbing. I even broke the banister as I collapsed to the wooden floor below. All I could do was sit there, tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t stand back up. I couldn’t speak. I was a completely broken man.

Denise came running when she heard me fall. I think she thought I had had a heart attack. She was asking if she should call 911. I literally couldn’t speak through the sobs. All I could do was push play on the video and hand her my phone.

We both watched the video in absolute awe and amazement; its message changed everything instantly. It said everything I had been trying and failing to explain to Denise for months. She suddenly understood why this case was so important to me, and almost immediately, our relationship was transformed. It was as if God was testing me to see if I would really keep my promise to Him—and, in seeing that I would by putting Him above the love of my life in that moment, He suddenly restored our marriage yet again.

Those prayers I prayed on the fifty-yard line after the Bremerton High School football games were never for attention, and certainly never to proselytize impressionable minors. Ask anyone who knows me; they’ll tell you that I’m not the most religious guy. I believe in freedom of religious expression for people of all faiths, not just my own. As a twenty-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 all enemies, foreign and domestic, when I took my Oath of Enlistment. I didn’t understand why the same rights guaranteed to everyone else in this country were suddenly being taken away from me. Yet, if you had told me—or anyone else who knew me as a young man—that I’d become the poster guy for religious freedom in America, the infamous “Praying Coach,” I’d have laughed.

Though I was raised in church, I didn’t meet God until I was fourteen, when I thought my parents moved away without telling me, leaving me behind. In a blind rage, I broke into their old house and destroyed everything in sight. I was a screaming, sobbing, exhausted mess in the middle of the living room, cursing at God and asking Him to show Himself. After being carried off by the sheriff to a state-run group home, my adopted parents eventually sent me to a paramilitary-style boy’s home upstate in the mountains. Despite the rage that consumed me, God began showing Himself to me through what I can describe as nothing other than a series of divinely inspired “coincidences.”

I never learned to formally pray. My prayers have always been short, simple, and conversational, as if I’m just talking to God. I don’t quote a lot of Scripture. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know a lot of Scripture! As a kid, I hated reading, so to this day I don’t even really read the Bible. I’m a simple guy with a simple philosophy when it comes to religion: I try to love God and love others to the best of my ability, and I still fail at that all the time.

Yet for some reason, as I was watching the movie Facing the Giants one Friday night in 2008, I felt what I can only describe as His hand reaching through my TV screen and grabbing hold of my heart. In that instant, I knew that I, like the coach in the movie, was being called to give thanks to God after every game, win or lose. I had no idea that the promise I made to Him on my knees late that night in front of my living room TV screen would have national and historical ramifications.

I didn’t know that this unwanted, troublesome kid would one day be invited to the Oval Office to meet the president of the United States …

… that this jarhead who loved to fight would be called to fight for something with such purpose …

… that this guy who barely graduated high school would be quoted in legal textbooks for the next hundred years …

… or that this average Joe’s life would be used by God in extraordinary and unfathomable ways.

If you think my story is too unbelievable to be true, just think how I feel—and I lived it! This is my chance to tell my story and show how God continues to use the most unlikely people, like me, to change the world.

Order your copy of Average Joe: One Man’s Faith and the Fight to Change a Nation by Joe Kennedy.