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Is it possible to pray in schools? Coach Kennedy’s case resumes school prayer debates

 Is it possible to pray in schools?  Coach Kennedy’s case resumes school prayer debates

When Joe Kennedy was offered a job as a football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington, he fell to his knees and prayed. He wanted to know if God supports the transition to a career and how accepting that position will affect his faith.

“It was as if God came down and hit me. … I heard my call right there on the floor, ”he said.

From that moment on, Kennedy became convinced that God wanted him to not only train but also continue to pray. From 2008 to 2015, he bowed his head in front of the 50-yard line after each game, thanking God for his work on the field.

“I was going to give glory to God after every game, win or lose,” he said.

Over time, Kennedy’s prayer habit took root in many of his players and even some members of the opposing teams. What used to be a quiet individual practice has become a common experience, similar to the prayer circles formed after Nfl games.

In the 2015 football season, the eighth for Kennedy as the university’s assistant coach and head coach of the JV team, the school management intervened. They told Kennedy that public schools could not support religion, and asked him to return to his original practice of praying alone.

At first Kennedy obeyed, but he also consulted with lawyers. Soon the coach and the school district entered into a full-fledged legal battle, a struggle that remains unresolved after seven years.

Kennedy insists the school district misread his intentions. His desire was – and is – to quietly thank God on the 50-yard line, he said, so as not to disrupt the football program and cause a cultural war.

“The thought of someone being fired in America for demonstrating their faith will surprise me,” he said.

But if you ask the school district and its supporters what is impressive in this case, they have a completely different assessment. What is shocking: The coach believes that his religious interests are more important than the county’s duty to protect students and prevent religious spectacles on the football field, said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents Brammerton County School to the right.

“Parents should be responsible for their children’s religious beliefs and education, not public or non-public schools,” she said.

On Monday, the Supreme Court will consider these competing claims and related issues about the rights of school staff and the scope of the founding clause. Although legal experts disagree on how the case should turn out, they share the view that this could lead to the court ruling on the most significant religious freedom.

Previous school prayer ordinances

Legal experts typically date the emergence of contemporary conflicts around school prayer to the early 1960s, when the Supreme Court issued two major prayer rulings over several years.

First, the judges ruled 6-1 in 1962, public schools in New York State could not begin school days with a prayer composed by the state, even if participation was voluntary and the prayer was non-denominational. The court said that this practice violates the paragraph establishing the First Amendment, as it is a government-funded religious teaching.

The following year, the courts relied on this precedent in a case that focused on obligatory Bible readings. In an 8-1 the court banned readings, ruling that public schools could not be required to participate in religious activities.

No ordinance categorically forbade prayer in public schools, but for decades since their enactment they have often been described in this way by the vocal faction of religious conservatives, according to Robert Tuttle, a professor of law and religion. at George Washington University. As these believers see it, the ordinances clashed with the American tradition of denying the country’s Judeo-Christian soul.

“There was a belief that religion in America was being attacked by the forces of secularism,” he said.

Joe Kennedy, a former assistant coach at the High School of Football in Bremerton, Washington, stands at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on April 5, 2022. The court agreed to hear a lawsuit he filed against the Bremerton County School, which left him on leave after he refused to stop his practice of kneeling on the field for prayer after the game.

TJ Kirkpatrick, for Deseret News

This perception continued to grow in the 1990s and 2000s, when the Supreme Court ruled two more decisions against prayer in schools. Judges said prayers should not be given graduation ceremonies or through the loudspeaker on sporting eventsarguing that such school-initiated behavior compels students to participate in religious activities and thus violates the founding clause.

“Most courts have said it’s coercion when children feel subtle pressure to show respect and listen to prayers,” said Richard Garnett, a professor of law and political science at the University of Notre Dame.

These and other rulings indicate that legal experts see the court’s key challenges in founding cases: evading state approval of a particular religion, state sponsorship of religious activities, and the creation of a coercive environment under government leadership.

“Schools should not engage in religious business,” Tuttle said. “Religious education belongs to families and their religious communities. It does not belong to public schools. “

Kennedy v. Bremerton

Representatives of the Bremerton School highlighted these ideas when they approached Kennedy in 2015. The school was concerned that group prayer was authorized in the field, and concerned about how Kennedy’s actions affected his team’s students, Laser said.

“The school asked him to stop, but also said they would be happy to work with him to find a way to respect his religious beliefs without forcing students to join him,” she said.

At first both sides seemed open to finding a solution, but the placement process quickly went off the rails. Kennedy says school officials continued to “move the racks,” while officials say Kennedy was committed to setting the stage.

In October 2015, the school sent the coach on paid administrative leave, which lasted until the end of the contract. Kennedy says he lost his job because of the conflict; School officials say he never applied.

Disagreements over what exactly happened and when persist for the past seven years. It would not be surprising if during the oral hearings on Monday the Supreme Court would devote a lot of time to discussing the main details of the case, Tuttle said.

As Laser noted, the school believes that Kennedy’s prayers violated the founding clause in different ways. Officials are concerned that students felt pressured to attend, and say a smart observer would believe that Kennedy acted as a school employee rather than an individual.

“The 50-yard line is the place that is most visible to everyone in the stands. … He prays in a place he has privileged access to because of his role in the team, ”said Tuttle, who worked on Short message amicus in support of the school’s position.

On the other hand, the Kennedy team claims that the school misapplied previous regulations and mischaracterized the coach’s prayers. Legal precedent doesn’t stop school staff from saying a quick, private prayer, and that’s what Kennedy has been focusing on all along, said Hiram Sasser, executive chief legal counsel for First Liberty Institute, the coach’s law firm.

“He could kneel and tie his shoes and he would be in the same position for the same time, producing the same amount of noise. The only reason anyone knows … he is praying is that there was a case about it, ”he said.

Garnett, who worked on short in favor of the coach, also believes that prayers do not violate the founding clause. He said past ordinances have distinguished between religious activities funded by schools and private religious expressions that take place at the school.

“I believe that it does not matter whether these religious statements take place privately or publicly. The question is whether they are related to any official government activity or coercion, ”Garnett said.

At the county and district levels, judges sided with the county, ruling that Kennedy’s prayers were more than an individual private act. Prayers in the center of the field with the students present cause significant concern to the institution, writes Judge Milan Smithserving in the 9th U.S. District Court of Appeal, in March 2021.

“The point in this case is not a personal and private display of faith, as Kennedy is trying to define it. It was – in every sense of the word – a demonstration, and because Kennedy demanded that it take place immediately after the final whistle, it was a demonstration, necessarily directed against students and the audience, “he said.

After a series of losses in the lower courts, Kennedy’s team appealed to the Supreme Court. In January, judges agreed to listen right and find out if schools can restrict staff speech and whether Kennedy violated the founding clause.

The future of prayer in schools

In light of the Conservative majority in the Supreme Court and its general support for claims to religious freedom, most court observers expect the coach to win. The key question, then, is how the judges will explain their decision and what that explanation will mean for future debates.

Tuttle, among others, worries that the final decision will undermine many of the school’s prayer decisions issued over the past 60 years. If judges prefer to defend Kennedy’s religious practices and rights to free speech, they will give a big win to those who want to see more prayer and more religion in public schools, he said.

“I’m concerned that he will benefit on the grounds that he actually licenses teachers to engage in uncontrolled religious activities in schools,” Tuttle said.

Similarly, Laser believes the coach’s decision could harm students across the country. We all need to make sure that classes – and school football fields – remain a religiously neutral space, she said.

In contrast, Garnett said the case is unlikely to violate the status quo. The court can rule for Kennedy without lifting past bans on prayers organized at the school, he said.

“Some of the comments (on this case) exaggerate the consequences a bit,” he said. “This suggests that in the absence of a federal judge who will tell you what you can and cannot do, people will automatically do the most destructive things. I don’t think we live in such a world. ”

It is possible that Kennedy’s victory could lead to clearer and better policies in school prayer, Garnett added. Currently, the school district of Bremerton is not the only district struggling with the debate on the establishment.

“School officials and government officials are sometimes wrong on the side of censorship, as they worry that they will be held accountable for some provisions of the institution,” he said.

For his part, Kennedy is looking forward to the long-awaited decision. He wants to be able to coach Bremerton again and kneel on the 50-yard line to pray.

“I either thank God or I apologize. This is the story of my life, ”he said.

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