An upcoming religion case at the Supreme Court will offer the chance to find out just how willing the court is to buy into misinformation to justify its preferred outcome. The smart money is on the members of its ultraconservative majority being all too willing to disregard the truth in order to privilege religion.
The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, involves a Washington public high school football coach, Joe Kennedy, who wants to be able to pray publicly with students. Kennedy had a long history of leading his players in prayer, in the locker room and on the field. When this was brought to the attention of the school administration in 2015, he was asked to stop. He refused, insisting he must be permitted to pray publicly with students.
Kennedy and his lawyers at the Christian extremist First Liberty Institute advance the narrative he was fired for praying silently and privately. First Liberty claims: “The school district fired Coach Kennedy for taking a knee and praying a silent, 15-30 second prayer.” The truth is that Kennedy refused an accommodation that would have let him pray silently and privately, and his contract was not renewed because he demanded to be able to pray audibly and publicly with students.
Kennedy and his lawyers are actively misleading the public and the court about the facts of this case. In one opinion on the case, a judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rightly called First Liberty Institute’s accounting of what happened a “deceitful narrative.”
Kennedy was disciplined only after Bremerton offered exactly what he now claims he wanted — the opportunity to pray silently and privately — and Kennedy refused. The school offered to make the school building, athletic facility or press box available to him for a prayer after the game. He refused. The school noted that he could pray at his preferred location at the 50-yard line after the stadium had emptied and he was no longer on duty as a coach. He refused. At any time, Kennedy could have prayed silently and invisibly to himself. He refused.
The only conclusion is that it is essential to Kennedy that he be allowed to pray while he is still on duty as a public school coach, in public, in view of spectators and students, in a location he only has access to because of his position as a public school employee.
(Courts are loath to question the sincerity of a person’s religious beliefs, but perhaps they should — to my knowledge, Christians believe that God hears all prayers, no matter when or where they are said. Jesus, in the bible, admonishes people who pray publicly for the purpose of being seen. Under what tenet of the Christian religion is Kennedy praying silently to himself, or in a private room, or later in the evening, insufficient? If First Liberty characterizes the school’s proposed accommodation of making a private room available for Kennedy to pray as forcing him to “hide in a press box,” one wonders what they make of Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 6:6: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”)
Rather than fire him immediately, the school district tried to work in good faith with Kennedy to find a way for him to pray that wouldn’t be coercive to the students he was in charge of. But instead of accepting a reasonable accommodation, Kennedy took to the media, most notably Fox News, to declare he intended to defy the district’s order to stop praying with students. He has since made regular appearances on Fox News with his First Liberty attorneys to promote the false narrative that he only ever wanted to pray silently and privately.
Kennedy had been leading students in prayer for years before this issue came to a head, in the locker room before games and also on the field after games. When Kennedy briefly paused his prayer practice after first being directed to do so by the school, no students prayed on the field without him. Coaches have immense power over their athletes’ playing time and position on the team. Students will naturally want to remain in favor with their coach, and indeed students have said that they felt pressured into participating in Kennedy’s prayers to keep the coach’s good opinion of them. That alone is plenty of reason for the school not to renew his contract.
Oral arguments in the case will be held on April 25, with a decision likely to follow in the summer. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a strong amicus brief with the court in support of the Bremerton School District.
It is possible this case will be dismissed on procedural grounds. Coach Kennedy has sold his Washington house and moved across the country to Florida, buying a home there. A plaintiff in a lawsuit must maintain an actual interest in the outcome of a case or else it is dismissed as moot. It makes no sense to claim that Kennedy would move across the country for a job which pays less than $6,000 a year. (Of course, despite the fact that this scenario strains credulity, it has not stopped him from claiming he would return.)
However, if the Supreme Court does reach the merits of this case, it is sadly likely that it, like Kennedy, will disregard the religious liberty of the students affected by the coach regularly leading them in prayer in favor of allowing a government official to impose his religious beliefs on a captive audience of student athletes. The extremist majority will justify this by ignoring Kennedy’s history of audible prayers directed at students, his refusal of several perfectly reasonable accommodations to pray personally immediately after a game, and all indications that students were coerced into praying.
Instead, the majority will believe (or pretend to believe) Kennedy when he says all he has ever wanted is to be able to pray silently and privately. That is the narrative that best fits the majority’s predetermined outcome of privileging Christianity, which, for this Supreme Court, is more important than the truth.