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Football coach’s prayer case goes to high court

In late April, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments in one of the most controversial public school prayer cases to break down in a while.

It is about former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, a retired US Marine, who lost his job for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games at Bremerton High School in the Washington State. See tinyurl.com/yc7zckuy.

As journalist Robert Barnes explained, the case “raises difficult questions about the ability of public servants to live out their faith while serving and the government’s concurrent responsibility to protect schoolchildren from coercion and to remain neutral on the subject of religion”. See tinyurl.com/e5uczkt4.

The dilemmas raised by Kennedy v. Bremerton School District are tough. Now, after years in lower courts, the Supreme Court has decided to address the issue. Good luck to the judges. May they receive the wisdom of Solomon.

Kennedy is from Bremerton. He had been a troubled child who bounced around in group homes and foster homes before joining the Marine Corps. Twenty years after his enlistment, he returns to his hometown.

“I had never been particularly religious, but my wife persuaded me to go to church,” Kennedy wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed. “I felt God was calling me to be a better husband, so I entrusted my life to him.” See tinyurl.com/33ja57d4.

Although he has no football experience, he was offered a part-time job as an assistant coach for the local high school.

“The Bremerton High School athletic director seemed sure that my experience training Marines to work as a team was all the qualification I needed to be a football coach,” Kennedy wrote. “As I was weighing the opportunity, I grabbed the movie ‘Facing the Giants.’ It seemed like an answer from God. I made a commitment to coaching football and promised God that I would kneel on my own in silent prayer at the 50-yard line after every game, whether I win or lose. I lose.

Both parties to the dispute seem to agree that Kennedy began this expression of his faith as a personal act of devotion, with no larger agenda. He prayed for 15-30 seconds in midfield for several years without objection from parents, players or administrators.

But little by little his prayers became a thing. A few Bremerton players began to join Kennedy as he knelt. Then other players joined. Then the players of the opposing teams.

In 2015, school officials raised concerns that post-game prayers, led by a school employee, could be construed as an official endorsement of Kennedy’s Christian faith and that players who were not religious would feel compelled to participate.

“My commitment to God did not involve others,” Kennedy insisted in his op-ed. “It was just to pray alone at the 50-yard line after every game.”

Kennedy’s coaching contract was not renewed. At that time, lawyers were involved, of course. One thing leads to another. A U.S. District Court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Kennedy’s right to kneel in prayer.

Because the current U.S. Supreme Court has a strong conservative majority, there is speculation that High Court justices could overturn lower court rulings and strike down bans on praying in public schools.

Several NFL players (Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles, and former NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, among others) filed an amicus brief court case on Kennedy’s behalf, saying that if he had taken a knee at the 50-yard line to protest racial injustice, his school district wouldn’t have objected.

“This practice, like Kennedy’s prayers, is controversial — courageous to some and offensive to others,” the players said, according to CBS News. “But if Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the district would certainly not have argued that his speech was somehow the state’s speech. On the contrary, there would have been no question that it was protected private speech.” See tinyurl.com/2p8rbprv.

Other NFL veterans — including former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former NFL running back Obafemi Ayanbadejo — sided with Bremerton school administrators.

We will see how the judges will decide.

I have always defended the separation of Church and State. I am opposed to almost all state-sanctioned forms of religion at civic events.

It reminds me of my upbringing as a Southern Baptist when the Baptist mantra always held that we must keep the state out of the church and the church out of the state because to mix the two was to corrupt both . It’s still a wise view, worth keeping.

And yet. In that case, I share my fate with Kennedy. Bremerton school officials and lower courts overreacted.

Separating church from state should never mean that individuals cannot carry their religious beliefs in public places, even if they work for the government, as long as they do not actively discriminate against citizens with other beliefs.

If a coach kneels to thank God for protecting the kids in a tough game, or to thank God for the opportunity to coach, it’s his right as much as yours not to kneel. Public property belongs to him as much as to any other citizen.

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at

[email protected]

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