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Aug. 12, 2022

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In Our View: Religious freedom at core of Constitution

The Columbian
Published:

Imagine, for a moment, if a public school teacher said a Muslim prayer in front of their classroom. Or if a coach hailed Satan following a game and some students joined in. Or if a drama teacher expressed their atheist views prior to the spring musical.

Those are not the scenarios facing the U.S. Supreme Court in a case that originated out of Bremerton. But they demonstrate the complexity of religious freedom cases and the tenuous balance between freedom of religion and freedom from religion.

On Monday, justices heard arguments in a case involving Joseph Kennedy, a Christian and a former football coach at Bremerton High School. As the Associated Press explains:

“For years, the coach would kneel at the center of the field following games and lead students in prayer. The school district eventually learned what he was doing and asked him to stop. . . . It told him then that he needed to stop praying with students or engaging in overtly religious activity while still ‘on duty’ as a coach. After Kennedy continued to pray on the field, he was placed on paid leave. His contract expired and he didn’t reapply to coach the following year, the school says.”

Judgment about the constitutionality of Kennedy’s actions will be up to the court; we would not be so presumptuous as to know all the details of the case. If Kennedy delivered a fire-and-brimstone monologue praising Jesus and suggesting that nonbelievers are going to Hell, that is far different from giving thanks for the safety of players.

Nor would we suggest that kneeling at midfield following a game is unusual; it happens after every National Football League contest, with players from both teams joining hands.

But questions about religious freedom can be touchy, and they speak to the very meaning of the U.S. Constitution. That Constitution, in the first words of the First Amendment, says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

A post-game prayer at midfield is not the same as Congress establishing a state religion. But Thomas Jefferson wrote that the Establishment Clause amounted to a “wall of separation between the church and state,” and courts have upheld that interpretation.

As an essay from “The First Amendment Encyclopedia” states: “Jefferson had earlier witnessed the turmoil of the American colonists as they struggled to combine governance with religious expression. Some colonies experimented with religious freedom while others strongly supported an established church.”

Contrary to popular belief, the United States was not founded as a Christian nation. The 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, signed by President John Adams, explicitly says, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion . . .” The U.S. Senate unanimously ratified the treaty the following year.

All of that is a long way from a 21st century football field in Bremerton. But it reflects debates that have existed since the founding of this nation.

Whether or not a coach is attempting to establish a state religion is not really the question. The questions are whether that coach, as a public employee, is an agent of that state; and whether a coach who has power over an athlete’s playing time and their practice schedules can unduly influence a student.

The issues are complex. A ruling is expected before the court’s summer recess; it is unlikely to end debates about religious freedom.

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