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How much leeway should the Supreme Court give coaches to pray?

Is it their duty to pray on the 50-yard line?

Football coach Joe Kennedy leading players in prayer in 2015. Video screen grab

(RNS) — The current conventional wisdom has it that the Supreme Court will find a way to loosen the strictures of the First Amendment enough to give a win to Joseph Kennedy, the former Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who was suspended for praying on the field after games. And given Monday’s oral argument in Kennedy v. Bremerton, who am I to disagree with the conventional wisdom?

But rather than try to read the tea leaves on the court’s evolving establishment clause jurisprudence, come, let’s reason together.

For starters, I expect few would object to a coach communicating with the Almighty along the lines laid down by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:

And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others … But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.

In fact, when the Bremerton High officials offered Kennedy a secluded place away from the football field as an accommodation, they were pretty much enabling him to follow this injunction. But Kennedy would have none of it.

He felt it his duty to take his prayerful postgame knee on the 50-yard line. That a rival coach thought it was “pretty cool” that Kennedy was allowed to pray on the field is sufficient indication that he intended to be seen by others.


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I’m guessing he was adhering to a different one of Jesus’ injunctions, the so-called Great Commission, which also appears in Matthew’s Gospel, to “go and make disciples of all nations.” He had, after all, also been conducting prayer sessions for his players in the locker room — although, to be sure, his lawsuit does not assert a free exercise right to do that

At what point does a public school employee cease to be bound by the government’s obligation not to promote religion? Before the school bell rings? After the game’s final whistle? During oral argument, there was a good deal of hypothetical wondering about where to draw the line.

The photographic evidence shows that once Kennedy had made himself into a cause célèbre, he was joined on the field by players and fans alike, some of the latter in a stampede that injured a number of bystanders. I’d say that turning the postgame handshake ceremony into a raucous revival is well over the line. You may disagree.

Perhaps most pertinent, there’s the question of how Kennedy’s praying affected the kids he was coaching. As the longtime academic liaison to Trinity College’s storied men’s squash team, I can assert with some authority that playing time is coin of the realm when you’re a student athlete.

Who’s to say that there were no Bremerton High football players who put their spiritual integrity at risk for 40 minutes of playing time? Not Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who coaches a basketball team himself.

He put it to Kennedy’s lawyer, Paul Clement, this way: “What about the player who thinks, if I don’t participate in this, I won’t start next week? Or the player who thinks, if I do participate in this, I will start next week?”

To avoid such a situation, the court could insist that if public school coaches do not pray in secret, they should make sure they pray alone. I’m not sure that would satisfy Joe Kennedy. Would it satisfy you?