It’s Time To Play “You’re The Supreme Court!” Today’s Challenge: The Praying Coach!

“Hello everybody! Welcome to another exciting challenge on the game show everyone is talking about, “You’re the Supreme Court!” Today, we take on a challenge that crosses into legal, ethical and logical gray areas. What is the right way to handle a football coach who won’t stop praying on the football field? Are you ready, contestants? Here we go!”

Former Bremerton (Wash.) High School assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy began  “taking a knee” at midfield long before NFL players were Kaepenicking. Kennedy knelt in prayer at midfield after games, and was often joined by members of the team.  Bremerton public school officials fired him from his job in 2015 when he refused to stop his on-field prayers, which his superiors said violated the Constitution’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion. Bremerton sued, and all this time his case has been winding its way through the system, finally reaching the Supreme Court in oral argument this week.

The question before the  Court is whether Kennedy’s on-field prayers are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty or violate the First Amendment by promoting his religion in a government supported setting. The justices will issue their opinion decision in June.

In the oral argument, the issues were scattered far and wide, prime among them being “What’s going on here?” Was this a public display of religion under the school’s auspices? Was Kennedy’s conduct merely a private moment, protected by his right to worship without government interference? Did an assistant coach’s praying place pressure on the team’s players to join him in prayer, thus constituting coercion? In oral argument, the hypotheticals from the Justices came in waves.

Chief Justice Roberts asked whether Kennedy could have prayed aloud mid-field while standing with his arms outstretched. Justice Barrett added, “Let’s say he says the ‘Our Father’ with arms outstretched and it starts causing a lot of havoc in the stands.” Then what? Justice Alito mused whether Kennedy could or would have been disciplined for protesting the invasion of Ukraine, climate change or racial injustice. Justice  Kavanaugh asked whether a school could “fire the coach for the sign of the cross right before the game.” Justice Sotomayor helped out not at all with an incoherent hypothetical about a public high school disciplining “a coach who decides to put a Nazi swastika on their arm and go to the middle of the field and pray.”

At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but after a few games some of his players asked to join in. Eventually visiting players became part of the ritual. Soon it included an inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy would sometimes stand in the middle of a circle of players holding a helmet above his head.

The decision is likely to turn on whether the justices view Kennedy’s prayers as private expressions of thanks to the Lord or public spectacles.

“So, contestants, YOU’RE THE SUPREME COURT! What would you rule?”

“Yes, Jack! You’re the first to buzz in! What’s your answer? (Jack lives in Alexandria, Va. He is a D.C. lawyer, a professional ethicist—whatever that means—and he runs a web echo chamber called “Ethics Alarms!” Sorry, Jack, I’ve never read it, like just about everybody else with a life! But “You’re the Supreme Court!” Take it away!”

Well, Wink, I have to say that I see this as an easy call from an ethics perspective. To begin with, Coach Kennedy—remember, he’s an assistant coach—has no right to use school property for a public religious demonstration, which is what his prayers are even if all of the spectators had left the stands before he started his ritual. (So far, I haven’t been able to find out how long the games had been over before he had his prayer meeting.) If this was really just a personal expression of thanks, Kennedy didn’t have to use the football field. Of course he was making the school a party to his religious exercise.

The school also argues that his display constituted coercion, which apparently the school did not raise in the original case. That may be a legal procedural issue, but it’s still relevant ethically. Justice Kavanaugh—you know, the high school rapist and college beer-addict? He’s also been a school basketball coach— is quoted in the Times as asking, “What about the player who thinks, ‘If I don’t participate in this, I won’t start next week?’…Every player’s trying to get on the good side of the coach.”

He’s right, especially if most of his team mates are joining in (see the photo above.).

I see this issue as distinct from the NFL National Anthem protest mess, which unquestionable occurred during pre-game ceremonies and before full stadiums, and was engaged in by employees. No constitutional rights were involved, and employers’ rights to forbid political displays in the workplace governed. In this case, the issue is religion, not politics, and the employer is the government. Nevertheless, the same basic principle applies. The school can’t forbid the coach from praying, but it can forbid him from making praying party of his players’ school activities or doing so in a manner that suggest that the school approves, endorses, or is enabling the practice of religion.

Kennedy should have been fired.

“Thank you, Jack! Now what about the rest of our contestants? YOU’RE THE SUPREME COURT!”

“What do you think??”

18 thoughts on “It’s Time To Play “You’re The Supreme Court!” Today’s Challenge: The Praying Coach!

  1. “At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but after a few games some of his players asked to join in. Eventually visiting players became part of the ritual. Soon it included an inspirational talk with religious references. Kennedy would sometimes stand in the middle of a circle of players holding a helmet above his head.

    The assistant coach should have drawn the line way back when some of his players asked to join him, he should have respectfully denied them.

    The part in the bold is where the assistant coach really, really went off the rails, he went beyond his individual freedoms, involved others and it became the equivalent to proselytizing to students and it’s wrong for any representative of a school district (yes an assistant coach is a representative of the school district) to be engaging in such things on school grounds or at a school function. When the school told him to stop, he should have stopped immediately. The assistant coach was wrong.

  2. If the students used the prayer as sucking up to the coach to get a greater likelihood of playing – what’s stopping students from finding out what church he goes to and attending every Sunday devoutly with the intent to suck up to the coach to get a greater likelihood of playing. The coach should be fired for being a church attending Christian. Right?

    Evidence would suggest, that by the quantity of players who *didn’t* join in AND also still seemed to play with the same amount of time as the other players who did join in that this aspect of the ethics balance was a non-issue.

    If the point in time arose that the prayers became an obvious imposition on the school’s resources and time that they would not have been able to accommodate other people attempting other religious acts, then yes they had the right to ask him to stop and to fire him on the grounds that he didn’t.

    • I get annoyed by these stories because the main players acts horribly. I also get annoyed by overtly public displays of religiousity – which my long-suffering wife doesn’t understand. (My general thought is: “if you are doing this, what are you hiding?” It may be sincere or it may be some ruse to force a faith belief system on others, kind of like signalling how virtuous a person is. But that’s my predilection and/or bias.).

      I suspect the issue is that the players are high school aged students, ranging from 13 to 18 (maybe 19) years of age and are impressionable. The coach is making a public display of his faith, which he could do on the sideline, in the locker room, or the back seat of his car, and not the center of the field. In this respect, he is rubbing his religion in everyone’s face.

      Impressionable teenagers don’t have the full capacity of understanding what is going on. Maybe they are willing participants; maybe they aren’t. This coach is an authority figure, and he is misusing that authority. SCOTUS will probably thread the needle fairly carefully but the school would win.

      On the other hand, there might not be much difference for those professional athletes taking a Kaepernick. I wonder if the kneeling against police and police brutality toward blacks is really that different. Most professional sports facilities are owned by the city/county/state where the teams are located and the teams have long term leases for the use of those facilities. Political speech is protected speech; just as exercising one’s religion. Based on that, why would professional athletes have rights (not ethically, but legally) that this coach doesn’t have?

      jvb

  3. I concur with Jack. No one can stop me from praying anywhere, anytime. I don’t have to do it aloud and publicly in a setting where it might be objectionable, misconstrued or against the rules. Looks more like a Pharisee prayer from my perspective. I was talking to my grandson about prayer just this week. He asked me about when I pray, apart from saying grace at meals, and prayers we say at bedtime. I told him I pray all day long, whenever anything or anyone I should pray about or for pops into my mind. He said he had never noticed me praying throughout the day, and I told him I didn’t do it for people to notice.

  4. Since we don’t want students feeling as if they are expected to agree and/or participate with a teacher’s views out of fear that not doing so will reflect upon their academic or athletic standing, I wonder whether students subjected to a teacher’s opinion on race or gender issues might not feel compelled to agree, as well, for the same reasons.

    Reluctantly, I have to agree with your assessment, but I also don’t believe he would have faced any penalties if he’d done anything Justice Alito suggested even though that could also be considered pressure to conform on the part of his players.

  5. In our huddle right before beginning our seventh and eighth grade Catholic school league basketball games, we’d always say a prayer with the coach and we’d always conclude with “St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases, pray for us.” Hah. But that was Catholic school.

    I think the coach’s conduct did cross into improper governmental endorsement of religion. The firing was proper given his refusal to cease and desist.

    Now, if this had occurred in the Sayouth, (or even eastern Washington state, possibly) the guy would have been elected mayor or given a car dealership. Western Washington State, uh, no.

    On the ethics front, I’ve always found the kneeling circle of prayer on the field after a football game annoying virtue signaling and therefore unethical. I want to tell those players, “Cut it out. You just spent nearly two hours beating the shit out of each other. Just stop it. Take it to church.” I find it simply inconsiderate and uncivil, much like extreme public displays of affection.

  6. The coach crossed a line when he involved the players, so firing him was justified.

    But simply not having the government involved in education makes this problem disappear. Just sayin’.

    Hey, that’s also true for the student loan ethics discussed in the other post today! Why, it’s almost like a very large proportion of the energy of government is expended trying to deal with problems caused by government…

  7. Hmmm. School districts are now promoting sexual concepts to kindergartners, which is among other things a morality issue, and it’s ok for the state to endorse that, according to adherents of whatever belief system says that’s ok to do, and during the officially sanctioned school day, but a coach, after the game is over – and for the sake of argument let’s call that after the sanctioned school day – want’s show appreciation for the giver of his moral code, and that’s a problem?

    I think we’ve lost perspective about what we should allow to be “legally endorsed” by a government body.

  8. I get annoyed every time a major league baseball player crosses himself and points upward (presumably to some god) when he gets a good hit or makes a terrific fielding play, as a thank-you, I suppose, that God had the time or inclination to be in any way involved with his MLB performance. That, however, is an individual display of idiocy, and does not involve adolescents being affected by a person in power. At some point, forced religious behavior with underage young people should be put in the same category of inappropriate sexual behavior. The “it’s all about power” argument is the same for the football coach and it is with rape and other inappropriate sexual behavior, and it’s not a higher power either. It’s the need of some to proselytize their religious beliefs, especially with the impressionable young, and gain power through that behavior..

    • “I get annoyed every time a major league baseball player crosses himself and points upward (presumably to some god) when he gets a good hit or makes a terrific fielding play, as a thank-you, I suppose, that God had the time or inclination to be in any way involved with his MLB performance.”

      Or maybe he’s grateful that God gave him the skill and talent that, along with his own hard work, allows him to do something he loves, a skill the rest of us do not have, and wishes to acknowledge that publicly.

      I know if I could play in MLB I’d be pretty grateful to my creator. Sounds like you enjoy the game as well, and would be grateful to be doing it for a living.

      Very few have that gift.

  9. Perhaps I need to be schooled on the meaning of the words below.

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    I interpreted the first clause of the first sentence to mean that neither Congress nor any other government or governmental entity can establish, by law or rule, any particular type of religion that might lead to discrimination of others following a different set of religious beliefs. The second clause states that they (Government) cannot prohibit anyone from the “free exercise” of their religion. Free exercise to me means anywhere at any time in basically any manner the individual deems fit. Where does it say that governments must proscribe all exercises of religion by others on public property? That is how the separation of church and state is being interpreted outside the federal government.

    To answer the question at hand, I need to know if any player not joining in can show they had a reasonable belief he was discriminated against for not joining in. If no player felt this way then we cannot say that people were coerced into joining the “established” religion.

    Given that we have a national prayer breakfast in which the President is typically the keynote speaker we cannot say that government must prohibit all forms of religious expression. Moreover, the following prayer was issued by the U.S.House of Representatives Chaplain’s office yesterday How can that be if any expression of religious worship on government grounds can be considered endorsing a particular religion?

    https://chaplain.house.gov/?msclkid=6f0ba14ec74d11ecaf1afd823b7e3a09
    04/27/2022
    Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben
    Almighty God, again we lift up our prayers to You on behalf of the people of Ukraine. After one of the holiest weeks in the Orthodox Church, though they were once companions in belief, with whom sweet fellowship was possible in the House of God, the wicked have sown confusion. The evil continue to spread threats and lies.

    We appeal to You to speak into both sides of the conflict. Judge the betrayal of brothers in faith and enlighten them to Your truth. Allow those who have remained faithful to Your will, who live according to the loving example You have shown us, who adhere to Your word, to have their voices heard above the fray of falsehood and propaganda.

    In Your infinite mercy, answer the voices who cry out to You in distress. Bring redemption to the innocent from the horror besieging them. Give refuge to those who ardently defend their cities from the unthinkable violence and strife.

    Holy God, comfort those whose hearts are anguished. Calm those who are beset with fear and trembling. For in You, our Lord, is our only hope. We pray to You for Ukraine’s deliverance.

    In the strength of Your name we pray. Amen.

    I am not particularly religious, but I am not bothered in the least when others practice theirs. I always wonder why those who are so committed to atheism would care what someone believes. How does another practicing his or her faith impose an unjust cost on them? So what is the big issue of a coach or a player engaging in a practice of showing reverence to something or someone after a game. I have less concern about a high-school kid who is mentored by someone who believes in one or more Gods than I am of a kid mentored by secular humanists who believe man is highest form of being. A little bit of being humble makes one far more empathetic and open toward other people. If we believe that a high school kid is feeling coerced into pleasing the coach what of the preschoolers and elementary school kids who also feel the need to please the teacher who suggests that they may be gender confused.

    If high school players can take a knee for political reasons without consequence, I see no reason for his termination.

    Tangentially,

    We have far bigger issues regarding our liberties than this. The current administration has permitted DHS Secretary Mayorkas to create the equivalent of the “Ministry of Truth” under the watchful eye of Nina Jankowicz who is schooled in, and practiced disinformation in the last election cycle. This young woman will decide what information is able to be consumed in minority communities. She is a partisan and used her professional credentials to say the Biden laptop was disinformation and promoted the Russian collusion narrative.

    YES Nina Jankowicz, I am a free speech absolutist that you abhor. I don’t need the government to protect me from the rhetorical slings and arrows others may hurl at my consciousness. I have a well developed BS detector.

    I want Biden to ponder this question. If none of our rights are absolute as you (Biden) have stated why then do you say that the process in which we vote cannot include a photo ID as proof of identity?

    • 1. The main thing is that SCOTUS declared school prayer unconstitutional for the same reasons the coach’s carrying on is likely to be the same. That ends the argument that a public school employee engaging in public prayer in school, in front of students doesn’t run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

      2. Whether any player HAD a reasonable belief or not, the fact that such a belief is reasonable is enough. There are many, many parallel situations. I’ve gone to war over some of them, like a superior at Georgetown soliciting me for the the University’s United Way campaign. Did I feel coerced? No, but I could see others feeling that way.

  10. Given the question, “YOU’RE THE SUPREME COURT! What would you rule” I provided my answer based on how I would rule not on what has the SCOTUS ruled in the past. If you asked me how I would rule on abortion or affirmative action you could use the same rebuttal.

    I am well aware that school prayer is verboten. The facts of that case were that the morning ritual in public schools was to have the entire class recite the Lord’s prayer. In that case, it was obvious that the promotion of religion was being pushed by a government entity. I can understand the reasoning behind the decision because the Lord’s prayer is uniquely Christian.

    The challenge here is whether or not any exhibition of religious exercise can be proscribed. I am not so sure that is the case. How do we reconcile the fact that tax dollars support the office of the Chaplain in the House or promoting religion in other aspects of government? The SCOTUS decision in 62 prohibited officially sponsored prayer in Engel v Vitale and then a suit by Madeline Murray O’Hare (Baltimore City Public Schools) Murray v Curlett was consolidated with Abingdon v Schemmp challenging the practice of mandatory bible readings used the same reasoning. The reasoning in those cases does not specifically fit the facts of this case. In those cases, the school district itself was endorsing the practice not an individual teacher or school employee. Had this been the school’s grounds keeper and not a coach praying at mid field after a game would that make a difference? If not, how could anyone feel coerced by a grounds keeper and if so, why does the groundskeeper not represent the school district as well. The question at hand is do any religious acts by government employees on public grounds constitute an endorsement of any particular religion. If so, would teachers be prohibited from wearing a cross or star off David as a necklace in the classroom.

    I for one do not want kids to be forced into joining in form of dogma that is at odds with their own beliefs; daily school prayer is but one. However, I don’t want them to not have opportunities to join in a group that fits with their ideas. The ability to be able to join like-minded people is what makes people free. Isolating people makes them vulnerable to the whims of the governmentally permitted groups which can be every bit as coercive as the government itself. As government encroaches on our lives to an ever greater degree, the central question is do we want to make a rule so rigid that we deny people the opportunity to express their ideas and beliefs in a public forum simply because someone might feel offended or coerced.

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