The U.S. Supreme Court jumps back into the culture wars Monday in a case that involves a football coach’s asserted right to kneel and pray on the 50-yard line at the conclusion of a public school football game.
Joseph Kennedy, a coach for the Bremerton, Wash., 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 at midfield.
By the 2015 season, Kennedy was often joined at the 50-yard line as well by players from the opposing team. Indeed, it was an approving comment by an opposing coach that finally alerted school district officials to the practice.
The school orders Kennedy to stop
That prompted the athletic director, and later the superintendent, to order the coaching staff to stop praying with students. Kennedy stopped his locker room prayers completely, and for a least one game left the home field, returning later when the crowds had gone, to pray by himself on the 50-yard line.
But the Marine veteran didn’t like doing it that way.
“I fought and defended the Constitution, and the thought of leaving the field of battle where the guys just played and having to go and hide my faith because it was uncomfortable to somebody — that’s just not America,” he said in an interview with NPR.
So Kennedy returned to his praying practice right after the game, mainly at away games, and with little fanfare. By the time of the big homecoming game, Kennedy had retained lawyers from the First Liberty Institute. In a letter to school officials, they said that the coach had a constitutional right to pray on the 50-yard line at the end of the game, and that students should be free to voluntarily join in.
In the lead up to the game, Kennedy embraced his newfound celebrity, making repeated media appearances. In a subsequent deposition, he described this media activity as “spreading the word about what was going on in Bremerton.”
Tension builds ahead of homecoming
But as events unfolded, “it was a zoo,” said John Polm, Bremerton High’s principal, describing the homecoming game during his deposition. Attendance doubled, five TV stations showed up, and a group of Satanists unsuccessfully attempted to take the field to perform their own competing ritual.
Nathan Gillam, who served as head coach, broke down in his deposition when describing the harassment he experienced before and at the game and the chaos that ensued after. “I was done coaching at that point because I feared for my life,” he said. Despite his 11 years building the program, he decided “this is not worth it; I have two children.”
After the final whistle blew, a largely pro-prayer crowd mobbed the field, overcoming the extra security presence and knocking over some band members and cheerleaders. Surrounded by TV cameras and some players, Kennedy knelt to pray on the field while a state representative placed his hand on Kennedy’s shoulder in support.
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