In Our View: Keep Church, State Separate

Court correct to rule Bremerton coach out of bounds for post-game prayers

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Few issues in this nation can raise hackles quite as quickly as the separation of church and state. So it is to be expected that a court ruling involving a former football coach at Bremerton High School would draw national attention.

After all, Joe Kennedy already has become a cause c?l?bre for many conservatives. He was featured during a campaign stop by then-candidate Donald Trump in October 2016 in Virginia, and his case has been used as an example of a so-called War on Christianity. There are, indeed, strong arguments to be made on both sides of the issue, but before Kennedy becomes a martyr for the religious right, we have a couple questions for his supporters: Would they feel as strongly if Kennedy were Muslim? If he were a Satanist? If he were preaching to high school football players about Zoroastrianism?

Kennedy is none of those things. He is a Christian who was an assistant coach at Bremerton and would gather players on the field following games to deliver an inspirational speech that, in Kennedy’s words, “segued into prayer.” This went on for several years, until district officials in October 2015 instructed Kennedy to halt the practice; he refused and was relieved of his duties.

Kennedy sued the school district, seeking an injunction to get his job back. On Wednesday, a three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals declined to grant that injunction, with Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. writing that Kennedy “spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen when he kneeled and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after games in school-logoed attire while in view of students and parents.”

According to the decision, expressions of religious faith are allowed on school grounds if they originate from students rather than adults in a position of authority.

As mentioned, such issues can be difficult. There is much gray area, as demonstrated by court testimony that nobody had complained about Kennedy’s post-game prayers. But a lack of public outrage does not mean that the practice is constitutional or that it does not violate the separation of church and state.

As William Funk, a professor at Lewis and Clark College’s law school, told The Columbian in 2013: ” ‘Separation’ comes from Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase ‘wall of separation’ between church and state. In 1879, the Supreme Court referred to his phrase as ‘almost an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the (Establishment Clause).’ ” The Establishment Clause is the part of the First Amendment that prohibits government from establishing a state religion.

Kennedy was not attempting to establish an official religion at a public school. But his case serves as a reminder that religion is best left to families and their preferred houses of worship. As Richard B. Katskee of Americans United said following the appeals court ruling, “Teachers and coaches don’t get to pressure students to pray.”

Many Americans disagree with that assertion, wrongly believing that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. But as the Treaty of Tripoli stated in 1797, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Instead, the United States leaves room for all religions but room for none in publicly funded forums. And unless Kennedy’s supporters would adamantly defend a coach preaching, say, druidism, their arguments ring hollow.