The local story about Bremerton High football coach Joe Kennedy, who for years has been praying with his players on the field after games, is now national.
Coach Kennedy ignored the local school district’s directive from a month ago to discontinue the practice, and he was put on paid administrative leave yesterday. Nevertheless, the Seattle chapter of The Satanic Temple, of which I’m a member, has been invited by members of the Bremerton High community. It is planning on attending tonight’s football game, ready with an invocation of its own.
The Satanic Temple (TST) has pushed for church-state separation in a number of instances, most notably in their move to get the Oklahoma legislature to either remove a Ten Commandments monument from public grounds or allow access by other religions. The Ten Commandments monument was removed a few weeks ago.
Coach Kennedy, victim?
Coach Kennedy, represented by the Liberty Institute (Kim Davis’s counsel), is trying to spin the issue as if he’s both the good guy in this story and the victim: “This is the land of opportunity, and I’m seeing it all stripped away because I’m an employee.”
This isn’t hard, coach. You’re not acting as an individual citizen when you’re an agent of the government. When in a position of governmental authority, you can’t say and do everything you can when you’re only acting as a private citizen.
For him to force his students to listen to a Muslim or Hindu sermon would obviously be a violation. Even the Liberty Institute would agree. Make it a Christian sermon instead, and the problem remains. Make it “voluntary,” and the problem still remains: a coach is a government employee in a position of authority, able to punish players with tougher practice, less game time, or even an inferred “I’m disappointed in you, son.”
Even Jesus has made clear that Coach Kennedy is doing it wrong. Jesus put this kind of public prayer off limits (and how much more public could it be, now that it’s a national story?).
When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5–6)
Joe Kennedy may be at the game tonight—he’s free to do so. The TST members have an invocation of their own planned, but the organization’s policy (as I understand it—I speak for myself and not for the TST or its Seattle chapter) is to become involved only in response to an environment that appears to give government authority to a single religion. It’s all or nothing. If there are no public prayers, then we’ll just enjoy the game.
To the good citizens of Bremerton who don’t like members of The Satanic Temple attending tonight’s football game, I say: thank the Liberty Institute.
For more background, I’ve summarized the two sets of tests the Supreme Court has established for analyzing a potential violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause in schools (the Lemon test) and a potential violation of the Free Exercise Clause (the Sherbert test) here.
The Bremerton School District has answered a number of questions about their actions and the legal precedents they’re bound by. For an individual new to this debate, Kennedy’s point may sound reasonable, but this is settled law. Here are a few excerpts.
About precedents that make this kind of prayer illegal:
In Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), the [Supreme] Court held that a school district’s practice of simply allowing its facilities to be used for religious expression during a district-sponsored football game violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause because of the reasonable perception by students and attendees of district endorsement of religion. That decision makes clear that students can pray on their own; but it is a constitutional violation of students’ rights for a District employee, acting as such, to initiate prayers with students.
The school district understands that not complying with the law wastes public education money:
The District cannot put scarce funds needed for the District’s basic educational mandate (which our State Supreme Court has already determined to be constitutionally inadequate) at such risk.
Response to the question, “Isn’t Kennedy off duty after the game ends, and free to do what he wants?”
No. All paid coaches in District athletic programs are required to remain with the program, performing duties as assigned, following athletic contests. These events clearly do not end upon the blowing of the final whistle.
About the coercive character of the prayers:
It is very likely that over the years, players have joined in these activities because to do otherwise would mean potentially alienating themselves from their team, and possibly their coaches. The District has a fundamental obligation to protect the rights of all of its students.
About the likelihood that the TST will be allowed to perform its invocation tonight:
The football field is not a public forum when it is in use for a District-sponsored athletic event. Thus, no group will be approved to use it for their own purposes while these events are occurring, and the District will take steps to enforce the closure of the field to non-participants while it is still in use for the District event.
[UPDATE 10/30/15: At the last minute, I wasn’t able to attend last night’s football game. However, a Seattle Times video shows the Satanists at the game, some “We love Jesus” taunts as well as some support by local folks, and Joe Kennedy praying in the stands after the game with some players. My guess is that, acting as a private citizen, this crosses no line.]
Image credit: The Satanic Temple