The separation between church and state may eventually narrow when the United States Supreme Court rules on a case involving a former public high school football coach praying on the field after games.
The court’s more conservative composition would mean a ruling defending the coach’s religious action would come as no surprise. But that doesn’t mean praying at public school events is appropriate. Many behaviors can be considered legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do given the circumstances.
The Washington state case that went to the High Court on April 25 involves Joseph Kennedy, a Christian and former football coach at Bremerton High School. Kennedy began coaching there in 2008 and initially prayed alone on the field after games ended. Students then began to join him, and eventually he began to deliver an inspirational speech with religious references.
Kennedy did this for years and also led students in locker room prayers. The school district found out what he was doing in 2015 and asked him to stop. He then refrained from leading the students in prayer but wanted to continue praying in the field itself, with students free to join.
The district was rightly concerned about being sued for violating the students’ religious freedom rights, so it asked him to stop kneeling and praying while remaining “on duty” after the game. The school tried to find a solution so that the coach could pray privately before or after the game. When he continued to kneel and pray in the field, the school put him on paid leave.
Everyone has the right to worship or pray as they wish in contexts that allow for demonstrative worship. A public school is not one of those places.
Public schools are for all children, whether they are religious or not. Students may very well be Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics. All should be able to attend school and participate in school events without adhering to any specific religious practice or philosophy.
This Washington coach knew very well that he could say a silent prayer alone wherever he was. Being demonstrative about one’s religious practices and making non-Christian team members feel like aberrant is a guaranteed result of such behavior.
Coaches are role models. Not following the team leader’s lead or participating in rituals that other members decide to join puts undue pressure on all team members.
Public school district officials have the right to recognize that religious practices have no place at a school event conducted by a district employee. Not only does such behavior provide fodder for a lawsuit, but it has a lot of potential to make team members feel like they don’t belong. That’s not what good coaches do.
We won’t know until June whether the Supreme Court will rule in favor or against the coach’s behavior. What matters most is not the legal dissection of the case, but the ethical dilemma presented by a public school coach using school grounds to practice his personal religious rituals – and therefore not doing coaching on children.