Later this month, the Supreme Court will take on the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. If you have not been paying attention to this case of the praying coach, you should take a look, because once again the court is contemplating smashing holes in the wall between church and state.
The case comes from Washington State, where high school football coach Joe Kennedy made a practice of taking a knee for a brief prayer at the end of games. He started the practice when he was hired in 2008, along with motivational prayers for the team, and the district let it go while it was small and quiet. But then he started taking his knee in the middle of the football stadium, while players were still on the field and fans were in the stadium. It became quite a Thing, with players (sometimes from both teams) joining him for the prayer and, reportedly on one occasion, so many folks rushing the prayer that they knocked over marching band members. The district told him to knock it off and tried to find a compromise (he was offered another location), but Kennedy decided he would Take A Stand and keep at it anyway. Here's how Vox describes the next stage of this mess:What followed was a circus. Kennedy went on a media tour presenting himself as a devout coach who “made a commitment with God” to performatively pray after each game. Good Morning America did a segment on him. Conservative media ran with headlines like “High School Coach Bullied Into Dropping Prayer at Football Games.” By the end of the month, 47 members of Congress — all Republicans — wrote to Leavell in support of Kennedy.
The district put him on administrative leave. Kennedy decided to take the case to court. He lost on the lower levels, but he had established a Cause. In the meantime, he did not reapply for the job, though conservative media like to report that he was fired from coaching at the school.
Kennedy acquired legal representation from First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based legal outfit specializing in cases for the Christian Right. They ran the case up to SCOTUS, but in 2019 the Supremes sent it back to the minors, because more facts needed to be developed, but Justices Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh indicated that they didn't much like the lower court ruling against the former coach.
But he hasn't given up. Fox has had him on numerous times, where he explains that he has to fight for what is right and what is right for America. Besides his high powered legal firm and the above-mentioned 47 Congresspersons, Kennedy has drawn support from folks like Mike Pence and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita.
The lower court ruled, essentially, that Kennedy was working as a public employee and therefor his private First Amendment rights didn't apply, which ironically is much like the argument conservatives make when they say that teachers can't just teach whatever they choose or read whatever they like in a classroom (I should note that essentially I agree with them).
Defenders of the former coach argue that the prayer wasn't mandatory, which is a baloney argument. Reminds me of how high school teams have "optional" practices during the pre-season, and every player understands that these practices are only optional if you don't care whether you get to play or not. Coach Kennedy never waved his players onto the field to join him--he didn't have to. As one atheist player complained, he felt the need to participate in the prayer because he wouldn't get to play as much if he didn't.
The SCOTUS objections to the lower court ruling, written by Alito, is even more bonkers, suggesting that the coach was "plainly not on duty." I don't know how they do things in Washington, but here in my neighborhood if a coach got in his car and went home five seconds after the final whistle, leaving his teenaged athletes to get themselves in and out of the locker room and on their way, that coach would be having a Come To Jesus meeting the very next morning.
To me (and plenty of other folks), Kennedy's behavior is a clear Constitutional violation. But the way things are tending these days in SCOTUSLand, I'm not confident that we aren't going to see a newly invented right of public school employees to exercise their right to evangelize whenever they wish.
There are so many problems here. Sooooo many. Let's start with the teaming up a right to freely practice your religion as a school employee with the recently-created right to exercise your religion by denying service to people to whom you object--will public school teachers not only be able to start classes with prayers, but also refuse to teach LGBTQ students?
There's also the Be Careful What You Wish For element. How about a coach who lays out his prayer rug on the fifty yard line so he can kneel toward Mecca? How about a coach who wants to honor the team victory by sacrificing a live chicken on the field? And you can bet that the Satanic Temple will be ready with more of the sorts of challenges they have presented in the past.
And what about students who aren't Christian? If the court decides to open more religious floodgates, there are plenty of administrators and teachers who will sail happily through them. I know-- I used to work for and with them. In 1997, a district just up the road ended up in court because an atheist student sicced the ACLU on them over prayers at graduation. It was ugly--adults in the community accused the student of doing Satan's Work. The student won, further cementing the idea that graduation prayers could happen only if student initiated (wink wink, nudge nudge). And yet, with that clear local legal precedent, I listened to superintendents open sixth grade graduations with a prayer-- and not just a bland generic God prayer, but an explicitly Jesusy prayer. All of which reminds me of my former student who suffered through a year of an elementary teacher who tried to convert her from Judaism.
If Kennedy wins, things will get ugly in many corners of the country. But there will be much rejoicing among the people who believe that Christians need to "take schools back."
Meanwhile, I'm sure I'm not the first person to suggest that Joseph Kennedy and his supporters check out the Book of Matthew 6:5-6--5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.