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Heretic on the Hill: Put Me In, Coach, I’m Ready To Pray

I’ve previously mentioned the Supreme Court case involving a high school football coach who led some players in prayer at the 50 yard line. The Court heard oral arguments this week and we were outside on the steps at a rally for the school district being sued by the coach. The Secular Coalition for America (SCA) has signed on to an amicus brief supporting the school district. 


Here’s the issue: Did assistant coach Joseph Kennedy have the First Amendment right to pray in that setting with students right after a game, or was he as a public official and a coach effectively coercing some of them to pray who didn’t want to. The Supreme Court is on Capitol Hill, and many of the separation-of-government-and-religion policy decisions are being made by the Court lately, so this Heretic on the Hill is about a football coach.  


The coach was outside the Court for a while, football in hand, ready for his photo-op praying on the steps. We were attending a good sized rally in which Congressman Jamie Raskin gave a ten-minute summary of the relevant case law and the First Amendment protections that were being threatened. Several church officials from Bremerton, Washington, where the high school is located, spoke about why they objected to the coach’s prayers. I was surprised that there was no counter-rally by those supporting the coach. Maybe they realized they had the advantage going in. 


The facts of the case are fairly extensive. Different times the coach prayed alone or with players, various alternatives the school proposed to him so he could pray privately, various warnings they gave him, the growing media involvement, whether he was fired or just didn’t reapply when his contract was up. Some of the facts are in dispute, which isn’t often the case in a Supreme Court case. What does often happen is that the justices ask a number of hypothetical questions, which they did. What if the coach just briefly crossed himself on the sideline before the game? What if he took a knee during the national anthem? What if someone brought a Ukrainian flag out to the 50 yard line?  How would the school react in these situations? 


Some legal experts say this case should never have been taken up by the Supreme Court. The coach lost decisively at the district court and appeals court levels. But courts are made of people and some of those on the Supreme Court were not impressed. The line of questions during the oral arguments didn’t seem promising for finding five justices who agree with the school. A feature of the recent religious freedom cases taken up by the Court is one aggrieved citizen whose rights may have been violated versus a mass of faceless students or school officials or bureaucrats or public health officials trying to cope with a formidable First Amendment dilemma. It’s getting easy to predict which side the Court will take.


Justice Alito focused on the fact that this is essentially an employment discrimination case that revolves around whether the coach was fired and what reasons were given by the employer at the time. He said some of the surrounding events are superfluous. This could be the difference between a narrow verdict for the coach and a sweeping win for school prayer. Coach Kennedy would be able to move from Florida back to Bremerton and resume his $5,000 per year job. The verdict will be announced this summer. 


As we were about to head back to the office, SCA’s executive director Debbie Allen walked over to the one pro-prayer demonstrator there, the guy with the Protect Religious Freedom sign (see the last Heretic on the Hill for how that phrase has been reimagined). She just started talking to him, which she often does with people on the other side of our issues. It’s safe to say that no minds were changed in those few minutes but I heard him thank her for the reasonable conversation. 


Reasonable conversations should be the way to resolve a question like where can a coach pray after a game. When questions get into the courts, the First Amendment protections we have assumed for decades go under question themselves.  Long-standing precedents are in danger of being limited or even overturned. That’s why it was important for us to join the rally that morning for freedom from religion on the football fields at every school.


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