Monday, November 2, 2015

Coach's Prayer Ignites Bruhaha

Joe Kennedy spent 20 years in the military before becoming an the junior varsity coach and an assistant varsity football coach for a Bremerton, Washington high school.  After each game, starting in 2008, he would pray by himself at midfield.  His players were not required to join him, but, after a while, his prayer session attracted players, other coaches and even fans.

It also drew the attention of the Bremerton School District, which first threatened to fire Kennedy for his public display of his religious beliefs. He stopped for a while and then resumed. So, the District placed him on paid administrative leave.  Kennedy’s only job with the school is as a coach.  Otherwise, he works as a “process improvement project manager” at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, according to a published report.

The district said Kennedy had to stop because it was bound by “lawful and constitutionally-required directives” about public religious displays.  The District’s attorneys say they fear Kennedy’s public prayer will open the school to a lawsuit from groups pushing to maintain strict separation of church and state.  “To summarize: While on duty for the District as an assistant coach, you may not engage in demonstrative religious activity, readily observable to (if not intended to be observed by) students and the attending public,” the letter to Kennedy read.

In response, the Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, announced plans to sue the School District on Kennedy’s behalf.  Kennedy and his supporters insist that public school employees have a right to express their faith.

What a mishegas.(Yiddish for a real mess.)

Both sides have decent arguments.  After all, Kennedy doesn’t make prayer an obligation for his players.  Nor does the prayer actually take much time.  To onlookers, his actions resemble little more than a baseball player crossing himself before getting into the batter’s box, or a football player pointing to heaven after scoring a touchdown.

Tebow praying
Reportedly, his brief prayer contains the following sentiment:  “Lord, I thank you for these kids and the blessing you’ve given me with them. We believe in the game, we believe in competition and we can come into it as rivals and leave as brothers.”

That seems innocuous.  After all, many athletes have openly prayed, including former University of Florida star quarterback Tim Tebow.

On the other hand, Kennedy is in a leadership position.  His players see what he is doing and may feel the need to join in, just to stay on the coach’s good side.  That’s the unspoken coercion of power. 

The District is well aware of that aspect.  "While attending games may be voluntary for most students, students required to be present by virtue of their participation in football or cheerleading will necessarily suffer a degree of coercion to participate in religious activity when their coaches lead or endorse it," Bremerton School District said.

“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program … Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others,” the letter added.

For Kennedy, the issue is obvious.  “I spent 20 years in the military fighting to defend the Constitution, and it didn’t seem right that I wasn’t allowed to say a prayer with my guys after a football game was over,” he said. “I’m standing up for what I believe is right.”

Bygone school prayer
But what is right isn’t that clear.

Public schools walk a very fine line to avoid supporting one religion over another. Private schools can do whatever they like, but schools supported by tax dollars have severe limitations.  They can provide rooms after school for groups espousing various faiths, but they can’t force people to pray to a particular deity.

That’s why the old Christmas-time assemblies, where everyone sang popular carols, have vanished.  So have celebrations of Halloween, lest conservative religious parents complain.  

In many ways, Kennedy is just another pawn in the constant warfare between religious groups determined to impose their faith on others and their counterparts equally adamant that religion has no place in public life. The courts will have to sort out this confusion. 

Kennedy initially turned down the opportunity to pray in some area away from public view.  Such accommodations are commonplace throughout this country and will probably provide a solution.  Of course, Kennedy won’t be rehired anyway.

His case will fade away, as all the others have.  On the other hand, the persistent efforts to impose Christianity will guarantee that opponents will remain vigilant even for something as seemingly innocent as a lone coach on his knee saying a silent prayer.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at