And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Matthew 6:5.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16.
I’ll leave it to others for now to parse the legal ramifications of the US Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, handed down Monday. That’s the one where a high school football coach in Washington state thought he was called by the free exercise of his religion to pray on the 50-yard line at a high school football game, the school district slapped him down and the Supreme Court slapped the school district down.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the court’s off on a legal bender as foolish and dangerous as anything since the Dred Scott decision helped kick off the Civil War, and I’ll have plenty to say about it later.
But in this case, the high school football case, they kicked the ball through their own goalpost.
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch for the 6-3 majority, finding for the praying football coach.
Others saw it quite differently.
“It’s taking away the choice for those Bremerton High School students, and indeed, for all Americans, to practice their religious expression the way they see fit,” the Rev. Gregory Reffner, pastor of a local United Methodist Church, told KING-5 television news of Seattle.
Reffner said he’d like to do a little pastoral counseling with the coach.
“I think there are a whole number of better, more faithful ways to show one’s faith than to do what Coach Kennedy did,” he said.
Reffner has suggested, in a regional United Methodist newsletter, that the case has overtones of white Christian nationalism, among other things, that it is “one more desperate attempt for American Christianity to clamor for the power and privilege that was never ours to have,” to the exclusion of Jews and other religious minorities.
Still at issue, even after Kennedy v. Bremerton was decided, are the facts of the case.
In an article for Greater NW News, a publication of the Greater Northwest Conference of the United Methodist Church, Reffner noted that “The disputed events took place over six years ago, and the all-important facts of the case have been curiously undecided for just as long.” He felt so strongly about it that he accompanied people from the school district, along with other Christian and Jewish faith leaders, to support the separation of church and state.
Basically the facts of the case boil down to a disputed “he said-she said” story, but one with a twist.
Joe Kennedy, the praying coach says his prayer was “a private matter between God and myself,” and and six justices of the Supreme Court apparently agree with him. But the school district, other observers — and three justices who joined in a dissent — say the 50-yard line at a high school football game is hardly a private place, and Kennedy was all over the local media publicizing his prayers in advance.
After watching a local TV news report (embedded at the top of this post), it seems to me like there were an awful lot of players — from Bremerton and another high school team — clustered around Kennedy as he led his prayer on the 50-yard line, and they finished with a cheer.
This led to an unusual public disagreement on the facts of the case between Gorsuch and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the dissenting opinion. She even included a crowd shot of the prayer circle (which was picked up by the Washington Post); and “argu[ed] that Kennedy’s promotion of his cause in the media undercut the idea that his prayer was ‘quiet’.”
All of which led the Seattle Times to run a story based on its own reporting back in 2015. Far be it from me to take sides in a dispute between Supreme Court justices, but as an old newspaper guy, I’m going to trust the reporters who were there.
And the Times‘ analysis was withering.
Metro columnist Danny Westneat, who “takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region’s news, people and politics” according to the blurb at the bottom of his column, noted that the court ruled Kennedy had the right to a “short, private, personal prayer.” But Westneat deconstructs that assertion in considerable, convincing detail:
This ruling sounds reasonable, as who is against short, private, personal prayer? The problem is that the only part of the phrase “short, private, personal prayer” that is accurate to what was going on in Bremerton in the fall of 2015 is “prayer.”
We know this because it all played out here. One piece of evidence in the court record was a Seattle Times article from Oct. 15, 2015.
It was an account of a news conference Kennedy gave before the team’s big homecoming game against Centralia. “Football coach vows to pray” was the print headline. It describes — in Kennedy’s own words — how he was inspired to start holding midfield prayers with students after he saw an evangelical Christian movie called “Facing the Giants,” in which a losing team finds God and goes on to win the state championship.
Kennedy “has held his postgame ritual at midfield after each game for a motivational talk and prayer ever since,” the story recounted. By doing so, Kennedy said he is “helping these kids be better people.” [Links in the original.]
Westneat also quotes one of Kennedy’s football players:
Here’s how a former player at Bremerton High School described that homecoming game in a brief to the court:
“To this day, I don’t remember who we played or if we even won. … All I remember is the aftermath of that game” in which there were “over 500 people storm[ing] the football field … from both sides, hopping the fences and rushing to the field to be close to Kennedy before he started his prayer.” [Link and brackets in the original.]
This, suggests Westneat, was what a “short, private, personal prayer” looks like? He continues:
There’s more — the lawyers and Kennedy keep saying he was “fired for praying,” though he was not fired, he never applied for the next season. It all caused a judge in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Milan Smith, to call out the whole case last year as built on a “deceitful narrative.”
“The facts in the record utterly belie [Kennedy’s] contention that the prayer was personal and private,” Smith wrote. Smith, a George W. Bush appointee, later dubbed what the coach was doing as “‘everybody watch me pray’ staged public prayers (that spawned this multi-year litigation).”
“I hope as this case proceeds that the truth of what actually happened will prevail,” Smith wrote.
It did not. The mythmaking story of a persecuted lone believer is what prevailed. [Links in the original.]
Hence the Seattle Times’ headline: “”The myth at the heart of the praying Bremerton coach case.” As an old newspaper guy I’m sensitive to headlines that don’t get the content of the story right. (Oh, I could tell stories!) But this one passes muster. Kudos to Danny Westneat, and kudos to the Seattle Times’ copydesk.
Why does any of this stuff matter?
Well, I think if you take a group of teenage boys playing a team sport, and factor in whatever reasons a kid might have to stay in the good graces of his football coach, you’ve got an incubator for adolescent peer pressure. I taught in a Catholic college, where the separation of church and state wasn’t an issue. We had crucifixes on the classroom wall, but it was all over the faculty handbook — you don’t proselytize, you respect the students’ rights to their own beliefs.
Sotomayor got into this in her dissent. Legally, it goes to the establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibiting an “establishment of religion,” i.e. a state church. But at bottom, in a school it’s about the kids:
The crux of the matter is whether these prayers might have made students feel compelled to participate. Sotomayor argues that there is plenty in the factual record to suggest that that, indeed, happened, and that this is relevant in evaluating Kennedy’s conduct after the warnings. (Sotomayor also argued that Kennedy’s promotion of his cause in the media undercut the idea that his prayer was “quiet.”)
“The record before the Court bears this out. The District Court found, in the evidentiary record, that some students reported joining Kennedy’s prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates,” she wrote. “Kennedy told the District that he began his prayers alone and that players followed each other over time until a majority of the team joined him, an evolution showing coercive pressure at work.”
She noted that the courts have in the past regarded children as particularly susceptible to explicit and implicit pressure. [Parentheses in the original.]
Reffner, the Methodist minister who went to Washington to support the school district when Kennedy v. Bremerton was argued before the Supreme Court, raised the same issue from a pastoral perspective:
[…] I’m not a lawyer; I’m a pastor. And as a United Methodist pastor, one of the things I regularly teach and preach is how Christians ought to follow the example of our God and continually examine the power and privilege that we hold and consider what it looks like to let go of that power and privilege so that our local neighborhoods might reflect the communities of love, justice, and peace that Jesus came to establish.
The fact is that Coach Kennedy was in a position of authority; he was a man who was looked up to by his players. He made calls about who played and who sat on the bench. His prayers did not examine the power and privilege that he held as a white, male, evangelical Christian; his prayers exploited it to proselytize vulnerable high school students. Yeah, Christian Nationalism still has a strong hold on our country.
I’m not a lawyer either. But to me that seems dispositive, as the lawyers like to say, of the issues I most care about. Kids have a right not to be pressured by their teachers, coaches and other authority figures into adopting the beliefs and practices of someone else’s religion. Period. No matter whether they’re my old college students at Benedictine or the kids on Joe Kennedy’s football teams out in Washington. Period. Paragraph. End of story.
Now I just wish there were some way we could dispose of Christian nationalism.
Aaron Blake, “Gorsuch and Sotomayor’s extraordinary factual dispute,” Washington Post, June 29, 2022 https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/29/gorsuch-sotomayor-praying-coach/.
Associated Press and Melisa Cabello Cuahutle, “Supreme Court sides with former Bremerton football coach who sought to pray after games,” KING-5 News, Seattle, June 27, 2022 https://www.king5.com/article/news/politics/scotus-decision-bremerton-coach-praying/281-4cd2ddc0-ccf3-4f46-8c19-445a55710a91.
“Praying Washington state football coach asking U.S. Supreme Court for his job back,” KING-5 News, April 24, 2022 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-LNBJIk-mY&t=64s [YouTube].
Greg Reffner, “Supporting the separation of church and state is the Christian thing to do,” Greater NW News, May 25, 2022 https://greaternw.org/news/supporting-the-separation-of-church-and-state-is-the-christian-thing-to-do/.
Danny Westneat, “The myth at the heart of the praying Bremerton coach case,” Seattle Times, June 29, 2022 https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/politics/the-myth-at-the-heart-of-the-praying-bremerton-coach-case/.
[Published June 29, 2022]