The 1st Amendment and 50-yard-line prayers

Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays with his team Oct. 16.
Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, center in blue, kneels and prays with his team Oct. 16. Associated Press file

American football sometimes appears to be the earthly manifestation of Christianity. An NFL team can produce as much prayer, testimony, kneeling and other invocations of deity as a Baptist congregation.

So, it turns out, can Bremerton High School’s team, the Knights.

Assistant coach Joe Kennedy has become a folk hero from Bremerton to Washington, D.C., for leading devotions at the 50-yard line after the team’s games. Many Christians have cheered his defiance of a district order to stop the public prayers. As the dispute has escalated, he’s been suspended from coaching, the Texas-based Liberty Institute has threatened legal action, and dozens of members of the House of Representatives have signed a letter in his support.

Kennedy is hardly a fanatic. He didn’t set out to organize a post-game worship service. He started praying by himself after the game; a few players later joined him, and later more. Eventually someone mentioned the devotions to a school district administrator, setting in motion his suspension Wednesday.

All this makes for a lesson on religious liberty. Kennedy is a good and courageous man, and there’s not a hint of evidence that he has played favorites with players who’ve joined his prayers. Still, he and his supporters have the Constitution wrong.

The United States pioneered freedom of conscience. It is embodied in the very first words of the Bill of Rights: There must be no “establishment” of religion – i.e., government support of a particular faith, creed or church – and no prohibition on the “free exercise” of religion. The Establishment Clause is exquisitely balanced with the Free Exercise Clause.

These two principles say that Kennedy, as a private citizen, cannot be forbidden by the school district from walking out to the 50-yard line after a game, kneeling and praying. The school district is an arm of government: It can’t forbid the free exercise of his faith.

The complication here is that Kennedy, in the immediate aftermath of a Knights game, is a district staff member – a government officer. When he’s carrying out his duties as an assistant coach, he’s restricted by the Establishment Clause.

The Supreme Court and the logic of the First Amendment require that teachers, principals, coaches, etc., be religiously neutral during school activities that involve students.

Staff members can’t lead students in prayer, nor can they discourage students from praying. They can’t hold devotions, nor can they forbid students from holding devotions.

Schools violate the Establishment Clause in a big way when teachers lead prayers in classrooms. In the classroom, students are a captive audience; they are coerced into participation. Kennedy clearly gets this; he stopped praying in the locker room prior to games because team members had no choice but to be there with him.

But the Supreme Court has also held that school staff cannot lead prayers during any school activity students take part in. Again, the issue is the Establishment Clause. A teacher represents the district; his participation in devotions implies the endorsement of the district.

There’s a constitutional compromise here within easy reach. Kennedy’s duties as coach end when the post-game activities are over and the players have changed their clothes and been released.

We’d suggest that Kennedy change his own clothes, take a little drive, and come back when the game and its aftermath are well and truly over. Then kneel at the 50-yard line as a private citizen. We suspect his prayers will be just as efficacious.