Kennedy v. Bremerton: The Praying Coach Returns

Kennedy v. Bremerton: The Praying Coach Returns September 3, 2023

On Friday night, September 1, 2023, an event happened that will be a footnote in the history of church-state relations in the United States: Coach Joe Kennedy once again knelt and prayed on the Bremerton High School football field after a game.  Coach Kennedy and his prayers were the subject of a 2022 U.S. Supreme Court case,  Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, that has critically impacted church-state relations in the U.S.

Joseph Kennedy was an assistant  football coach at a public high school in Bremerton, Washington. He used “motivational prayers” as part of his coaching. These included prayers when players were gathered in the locker room and in the middle of the field after each game. Over time the post-game prayers became big spectacles as players from both teams rallied around the coach to join in. Coach Kennedy also was known to deliver “talks” with religious content that arguably amounted to sermons.

At least one parent of a Bremerton High football player, plus other parents and members of the community, began to complain about the post-game religious rallies. Some students felt coerced and worried they’d be ostracized if they didn’t take part in the prayers. The school told Coach Kennedy that he could say his own prayers on the field after the games, but to leave the students out of it. When Kennedy refused to comply, he was fired.

The Disputed Facts of Kennedy v. Bremerton

The facts of the case depend a lot on who is relating them. According to conservatives, the case centered on Coach Kennedy’s individual right to pray, and on the individual rights of students to voluntarily pray with him. According to liberals, at least some students felt coerced into joining the prayers, and the big postgame religious rallies  amounted to a public school-sponsored expression of religion. And this amounts to a government-sponsored expression of religion, which violates the Establishment Clause of  the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court took the conservative view. The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was written by Justice Neil Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch was widely accused of changing the facts of the case to fit his opinion. For example, Justice Gorsuch wrote that Coach Kennedy “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” But other court documents described the post-game prayers as a “stampede” in which boisterous football players rushed the field to join the coach, sometimes knocking over members of the marching band who couldn’t move out of the way fast enough.

Mark Joseph Stern wrote at Slate that the Bremerton case is built on “a series of brazen lies designed to depict the plaintiff, Coach Joe Kennedy, as a victim of anti-Christian discrimination—and to erase the students whom he coerced into prayer.” See also  Ian Millhiser, Vox, “The Supreme Court hands the religious right a big victory by lying about the facts of a case.”

Coach Kennedy’s Return

So it was that Coach Joe Kennedy was re-hired at Bremerton High School.  Friday night was the first game of the season, and it was Kennedy’s first game as a coach since he was dismissed in 2015. How did it go?

“Joe Kennedy strode alone to midfield, knelt and prayed for about 10 secoI nds after his Bremerton High School football team beat visiting Mount Douglas Secondary School 27-12 Friday night,” the Associated Press reported. No one joined him, and there was scattered applause from the crowd. And that was that. There was no rally of praying football players in mid-field, and no reports of prayers and sermons in the locker room.

And I’d like to point out that Coach Kennedy was free to say his own prayers on the field before he was fired. It was the participation and alleged coercion of students that got him into trouble. Not all of the news reports are clear about this. Ironically, the favorable Supreme Court decision that got Kennedy re-hired didn’t address the fundamental problem of possibly coercing students into a religious exercise. As a result, the decision gave Kennedy no more prayer privileges than he already had back in 2015.

The Associated Press also reported that Kennedy may not stay at Bremerton long. He and his wife now live in Florida; he’s staying with friends for football season. And his life has changed. He’s something of a celebrity nowDo . He has a book about to be released. Florida governor Ron DeSantis wanted Kennedy to be part of his campaign tour of Iowa — DeSantis wants to be president —  but Kennedy declined.

After Kennedy v. Bremerton

The Bremerton decision has inspired a number of state governments to re-intangle public schools with religion. See, for example, “Oklahoma Approves a Religious Charter School” and “Do the Ten Commandments Belong in Public School Classrooms?” That last article is about a bill in the Texas legislature that mandated posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. It failed to become law, but the bill’s proponents have vowed to keep trying.

A 50 yard line, Coach Kennedy’s favorite prayer spot. Source: ID 4622880 © Bruce Works
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