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A coach coerced students to pray, and the Supreme Court just said it was OK

The justices undermined the religious freedom of public school students in favor of those of their adult coach.
Post game prayer
Then Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia players after they took a knee with him and prayed after their game against Bremerton, in Bremerton, Wash., on Oct. 16, 2015.Meegan M. Reid / Kitsap Sun via AP file

I’m a very proud parent. Several of my children were in the marching band and my son played junior varsity football, so my wife and I spent many Friday nights listening to the band and cheering on the Bremerton High School Knights — our home team just across the Puget Sound from Seattle.

As proud as we are, I recognize those high school activities aren’t about me or the other adults, or even the teachers and coaches. The games are for the kids — the players on the field, the band and the students in the stands. And it’s those kids who have been largely left out of the conversation about the Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, which has hung over our community for more than six years.

I’m disappointed, though not terribly surprised, that the court found Monday that it was OK for the team’s former coach, Joseph Kennedy, to hold public prayers with student players on the 50-yard line after football games. In their 6-3 decision along ideological lines, the justices undermined the religious freedom of public school students in favor of those of their adult coach. I’m very concerned that public school teachers and coaches now won’t know where the line is between their private prayers and public religious displays that students will feel pressured to join.

I witnessed the team gatherings Kennedy led many times and assumed they were traditional postgame pep talks; the coach would stride to the school logo at center field and hold up a pair of helmets while the players would encircle him and take a knee. From the stands, I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I assumed he was celebrating a game well played or motivating the players to come back stronger for the next game.

It wasn’t until 2015 that I, along with most of the community (and the rest of the country, once he started holding news conferences), learned that Kennedy often included Christian prayers in those postgame team meetings. I’ve known Kennedy for a long time; we worked together in the local shipyard for nearly 15 years, and he coached my son for a season. We were friendly, and I respected his work with kids in the football program.

But he crossed a line when he started praying with students — with other people’s children.

Teenagers see coaches as authority figures who determine playing time and influence how well they interact with the rest of their teammates, their friends. When Kennedy met with the entire team on the field immediately following games, with the community watching, it would have been incredibly hard for a teenager, any teenager, to refuse to participate, even if Kennedy’s prayers conflicted with the student’s personal religious beliefs. I feel for any kids, especially religious minorities or nonreligious kids, who participated because they thought it was the only way to be a good teammate, to impress their coach and to be included as part of the team.

It’s not the job of coaches or teachers to lead schoolchildren in prayer or coerce them, whether explicitly or implicitly, to join in religious activities. Students and their families, not public school employees, get to decide their religious practices and beliefs. Religious indoctrination is not the instruction that I or the parents I know want the public school involved in.

I wish I’d known sooner that Kennedy was praying with students during those postgame pep talks. I would have spoken up because I — like most of the Bremerton parents I’ve talked with — know it’s wrong for a public school coach to abuse his position of authority in that way. I’m speaking up now, in part by having joined a friend-of-the-court brief with other community members that told the Supreme Court ahead of its decision that the Bremerton School District did the right thing to protect students’ religious freedom.

The court, however, has failed in that protection. Its ruling Monday undermines the constitutional promise of church-state separation and long-established law that public school coaches like Kennedy and public school teachers (including my daughter who now teaches middle school) cannot lead students in prayer. 

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Like many parents who send their children to public schools, I trusted Bremerton to provide my four kids with a quality, secular education that was inclusive and welcoming to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. I’m proud that Bremerton has tried to do that. It is a shame that the court did not respect and maintain established protections for the next generation of students, which may soon include my grandchildren, so they can play freely and cheer on the Bremerton Knights without feeling like they have to pray to participate.