A few words today about a fascinating case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
No, not that one.
Consider the case of Joseph Kennedy. A former football coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Wash. Kennedy lost his job in 2015 for leading prayers at midfield after games.
The case presents complex issues involving competing clauses of the First Amendment. On the one hand, we have the protection of free speech and free expression. On the other, we have the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from endorsing religion.
“I think the Court is wrestling with not just religious expression, but how students can feel pressure to conform to the beliefs of their teachers and coaches,” Bob Gomulkiewicz, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, told the Seattle Times.
“Is that really coercion, or is that the product of us allowing teachers to express themselves in various ways?”
Kennedy, 52, graduated from Bremerton High School. That was no small feat. He was a troubled youth, growing up feeling unloved by his adoptive parents. He finished high school working to pay his own way, living in an apartment on his own.
That was followed by 20 years of military service. Kennedy returned to Bremerton in 2006, where he found work at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. In 2008, he was offered a job as an assistant football coach at his alma mater.
While considering the offer, Kennedy saw the movie “Facing the Giants.” It’s a Christian film about an abysmal football team that rises to a state championship after its coach decides to praise God on the field.
“I was crying my eyes out,” Kennedy told ESPN.com. “It was a clear sign that God was calling me to coach. I had never experienced that kind of effect in my entire life. I said, 'I’m all in, God. I will give you the glory after every game, right there on the 50, where we fought our battles.'
Turns out that coaching became Kennedy’s life’s calling. “The biggest honor of my life was coaching these young men,” Kennedy told The New York Times recently. “No lie. We had blood, sweat, tears and death in the Marine Corps, but I got way more out of coaching than anything else in my life.”
Kennedy’s post-game prayer began with him kneeling, alone, at midfield after games. After a few games, some of his players asked to join him.
“I told them it’s a free country; this is America, you can do whatever you want,” Kennedy recalled for The New York Times. “It was never any kind of thing where it was a mandatory thing.” Eventually opposing players joined in, and Kennedy’s short prayer would be followed by an inspirational message.
In 2015, Kennedy received a letter from superintendent Aaron Leavell, advising him of the school’s position. “In the public-school context, it is clear that schools and their employees may not directly prohibit students from participating in religious activities, nor may they require students to participate in religious activities,” Leavell wrote.
“Further, it is equally clear that school staff may not indirectly encourage students to engage in religious activity.”
Predictably, Kennedy continued his post-game ritual, now under the glare of media scrutiny. Just as predictably, he was placed on administrative leave. His contract was not renewed in 2016.
Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the school board, told The New York Times, “What we’re focused on here is the religious freedom of students. Going to the 50-yard line directly after the game when you’re the coach, with the students assuming they’re supposed to gather with the coach, and praying at that time, puts pressure on kids to join.”
“Faith is a private act that we commit to as individuals,” Rev. Meghan Dowling, pastor of the Bremerton United Methodist Church, told ESPN.com. “Coach Kennedy used his power as a school official to coerce students in public at a public high school to pray. That goes against my own conscience as an ordained pastor, but also a community member.”
Kennedy and his attorneys maintain that the prayer was always voluntary. In fact, one season, he named as captains two players who were opposed to the prayers. “I made both of them my captains because of that,” Kennedy told ESPN.com. “I need leaders; I don’t need a bunch of drones on the field.”
Jeremy Dys of the First Liberty Institute, which represents Kennedy, told the Seattle Times, “The school district has forced this coach to make a decision that no American should have to make, between a job they love and their religion.”
Despite the intricate constitutional issues presented by his case, Kennedy has only asked for two things: his old job back, and to be able to pray after games at midfield. As he told ESPN.com, “I want to coach football.”