Supreme Court questions right to pray on 50-meter line: NPR


The Supreme Court.

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Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The Supreme Court.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court returns to the culture wars on Monday in a case involving a soccer coach’s asserted right to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line at the end of a soccer game in a public school.

Joseph Kennedy, coach of the Bremerton, Washington, High School Varsity and JV football teams, began praying with his players before and after games in 2008. At the end of a game, he would take a knee and say a prayer with his players. in the middle of the field.

In the 2015 season, Kennedy was often joined at the 50-yard line by players from the opposing team. Indeed, it was an approving comment from an opposing coach that ultimately alerted school district officials to the practice.

School orders Kennedy to quit

This prompted the athletic director, then the superintendent, to order the coaching staff to stop praying with the students. Kennedy stopped his prayers in the locker room altogether and, for at least one game, left the field, later returning when the crowd had left, to pray alone at the 50-yard line.

But the Navy veteran didn’t like to do it that way.

“I fought and defended the Constitution, and the idea of ​​leaving the battlefield where the guys were playing and having to hide my faith because it was uncomfortable for someone – that’s just not the America,” he said in an interview with NPR. .

So Kennedy returned to his prayer practice right after the game, mostly in away games, and with little fanfare. By the time of the big reunion game, Kennedy had retained attorneys from the First Liberty Institute. In a letter to school officials, they said the coach had a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line at the end of the game and that students should be free to participate voluntarily.

Prior to the game, Kennedy embraced her newfound stardom, making repeated media appearances. In a later deposition, he described this media activity as “spreading the word about what was happening in Bremerton”.

Tension mounts before returning home

But as events unfolded, “it was a zoo,” said John Polm, principal of Bremerton High, describing the rematch during his deposition. Attendance doubled, five TV stations showed up, and a group of Satanists tried unsuccessfully to take the field to perform their own competing ritual.

Nathan Gillam, who served as head coach, broke down in his deposition as he described the harassment he suffered before and during the game and the chaos that followed. “I stopped coaching at that time because I feared for my life,” he said. Despite his 11 years building the program, he decided “it’s not worth it; I have two children”.

After the final whistle, a largely supportive prayer crowd swarmed the field, overcoming the extra security presence and knocking down some band members and cheerleaders. Surrounded by television cameras and a few players, Kennedy knelt in prayer on the field as a state representative placed his hand on Kennedy’s shoulder in support.

The parties included this image of Coach Kennedy, praying with the crowd after the homecoming game, in their joint appendix submitted to the Supreme Court.

Court filings

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Court filings

The parties included this image of Coach Kennedy, praying with the crowd after the homecoming game, in their joint appendix submitted to the Supreme Court.

Court filings

After the game, the back and forth between Kennedy’s attorneys and the school district continued. The school district took the position that if it wished to accommodate Kennedy’s private religious expression, it could not allow his postgame prayers to the midfielder, because such a public display during a school event would be perceived as the school’s endorsement of religion.

Two weeks later, the superintendent placed Kennedy on paid administrative leave, citing his failure to follow district policy against encouraging or discouraging student religious expression. Kennedy did not apply for a new contract the following year.

Religious discrimination?

Of course, no good cause – or bad cause – goes unfulfilled. Kennedy sued the school district, claiming it violated its First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion. He lost in the lower courts, but appealed to the Supreme Court, where the justices hear arguments on Monday.

“What’s at stake here is really the ability of teachers and coaches to engage in religious exercise while on duty,” said former Solicitor General Paul Clement, who represents Coach Kennedy at the Supreme Court. It is “established beyond question at this point that students are permitted to engage in some degree of religious exercise on school property,” he notes, adding that this case will “clarify the law [as to] whether teachers and coaches have comparable rights to students. »

But the school district and its supporters dispute that account.

“He wasn’t persecuted for his faith,” says Paul Peterson, a parent whose son played for Coach Kennedy on the junior varsity team in 2010. ‘never said a word about that.”

Richard Katskee, representing the school board, argues that what Coach Kennedy did was not a private prayer at all.

“He was center field at an event the school district is hiring coaches to run; he insisted he be surrounded by students and he said a prayer they could hear. Call it personal and Private just doesn’t mean anything.”

Former Pittsburgh Steelers football kicker Frank Lambert, now a history professor at Purdue University, points to the ‘dilemma’ players face when a coach leads prayers, even if attendance is optional: “If I do not participate, I risk demonstrating that I may not be a team player”, and the player risks losing playing time to a competitor for his position who has Joined in the coach’s prayer, he said Lambert filed a friend of the court brief in the case, along with a dozen other former athletes, supporting the school district.

But 11 current or former professional soccer players have filed briefs on the other side, including three Hall of Famers. As one of the memoirs puts it, “in a perverse way, by reducing coaches to state employees without autonomy, [lower] the court’s reasoning would unnecessarily compromise the ability of coaches to be effective as mentors and role models. »

Those in Bremerton who spoke out against Coach Kennedy’s public prayer are in the minority, but they argue that’s the point. “Where is the freedom of speech of the non-Christian student, the Jewish student, the Muslim student, the Sikh student, the student with no religion at all?” asks student rabbi Emily Katcher of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Bremerton. “Of course they have freedom, but they are in a weak position.”

The Reverend Douglas Avilesbernal, executive minister of the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, fears a victory for Kennedy would go too far, blurring the lines between religious and civic life, emboldening “a specific kind of Christianity,” in detriment of all others.

But the coach’s attorney, Paul Clement, compares Kennedy’s midfield prayers to a teacher wearing a yarmulke or crossing herself in the cafeteria before having lunch. While some students may see forms of religious expression and feel pressure to join in, “it’s something you have to allow as long as there’s no coercion,” he says.

Kennedy and his supporters say this case is about the school district trying to stamp out religious expression from its employees. They point to a letter written by the Superintendent of Bremerton, ordering Kennedy not to “engage in demonstrative religious activity” that is “readily observable” to students and the public. “It seems to us to send a message of hostility to religion”, explains lawyer Clément, “as if it were something almost shameful that you have to go and do in a private cabin”.

The school district sees things very differently. “The problem here was that it was never personal or private or lonely or any of those other adjectives that Mr. Kennedy’s attorneys describe,” attorney Katskee said. “He chose to put himself in the middle of the field at the end of the match to put on a show.”

Open the door to prayer in public schools?

Coach Kennedy’s case is coming to the Supreme Court amid a sweeping change in the law relating to government-religion relations. In 1962, the Supreme Court banned officially sponsored prayer in public school, emphasizing the First Amendment’s ban on any public establishment of religion. But more recently, the court has moved away from concerns about the establishment or endorsement of religion, instead emphasizing the First Amendment guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

In 1971, for example, the The Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 who declares Maybe not pay teachers’ salaries or teaching materials in private religious schools without violating the establishment clause. In contrast, in 2018 the court sought to equalize funding for religious and non-religious private schools. Without overturning the 1971 case, the court, by a vote of 5 to 4, ruled that a state must grant scholarships to students in religious private schools if it does so for non-religious private schools. And this quarter, the court heard a follow-up case that could further increase state funding for K-12 religious education.

So, is Coach Kennedy’s case a camel nose in the tent that could eventually lead to the reversal of the decision made 60 years ago banning official prayer in public schools? Katskee, the school board’s attorney, thinks it’s possible. But Clement disagrees.

“These cases may fall on the pike,” he acknowledges, but this case, he adds, is simply about whether public school employees can express their religion on school property.

A decision in this case is expected by the end of June.


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