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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Westneat: ‘Siren song’ still echoes

Case of Bremerton football coach lingers, has lasting implications for court

By Danny Westneat
Published: September 16, 2023, 6:01am

I wonder if Supreme Court justices ever feel embarrassed, like when a ruling they made turns out to be shaky or ends up making them look like fools.

Take the case of the Bremerton praying coach.

Ex-assistant Bremerton High football coach Joe Kennedy is back to his ex status once again, having quit his job after just one game despite being reinstated to it by order of the Supreme Court.

The case was never really about Bremerton, the football team or students. It was about a national conservative legal campaign to push more religious doctrine into the public sphere.

It worked, too. What really happened in Bremerton — a public school coach holding prayer circles on the field with everyone from students to politicians — was ignored by a high court that adopted a version made for a Christian TV movie. It was a “siren song of a deceitful narrative,” as one lower court judge rightly called it, that portrayed the coach as a lone sentinel persecuted for holding “personal, private prayer.”

If that’s what he’d been doing, it wouldn’t have caused any fuss in the first place.

More to today’s point, though, is that the high court was also warned how this would all end. The justices were informed last year in a legal filing that despite all the pieties about faith and coaching, Kennedy had no real intention of coming back to Bremerton to his old job, which should have rendered the case moot.

Kennedy didn’t take his job back when it was offered last year after the ruling, and this year is gone after one game. He called it a “fine bow” on top of winning his case.

“(They) were able to generate yet another media spectacle around Kennedy’s fabricated ‘return’ to coaching — just in time to promote the release of his new book and forthcoming movie,” said Rachel Laser, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which worked on the case with the Bremerton School District.

Do Supreme Court justices wince a little when they see what happened here? Do they wonder if they got played? Or are they so supreme that they rule and never look back? A similar reckoning may be bubbling up in a completely different high-profile case, this one about guns.

Last year, four days before the Kennedy ruling, the court struck a big blow against gun control by throwing out a New York law requiring a license to carry concealed weapons in public. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion, called Bruen, which argued that attempts at modern gun regulation are unconstitutional if they don’t square with American historical gun traditions before 1900.

Thomas’ review found there wasn’t much significant gun regulation back in the day. But a team of volunteer researchers, from the gun control group Moms Demand Action, has been unearthing old gun laws from dusty city and state archives, suggesting Thomas was incomplete at best, maybe to the point of being wrong.

A number of the found laws are from Washington. For instance, the researchers found that Wilbur, Lincoln County, which is out south of where the Grand Coulee Dam is now, had an ordinance in 1894 that made it a misdemeanor to carry “any concealed weapons, consisting of either a revolver or pistol or other firearms, or any knife (other than an ordinary pocket knife), or any dirk or dagger, slung shot or metal knuckles …”

Now that’s some sweeping gun control.

All told, the researchers have unearthed 159 antiquated gun control laws from multiple states, according to Slate. It means America’s relationship to guns over time is complex, as we also have obvious traditions that favor gun rights. Applying historical tests to whether modern laws meet conflicting traditions isn’t going to be simple, even for scrupulous judges.

“We tend to think of these Supreme Court justices as being all wise, or all knowing, but when people check their work, we’re seeing that they sometimes don’t have all the basic facts right,” said Rebecca Elbaum, the chapter lead for Moms Demand Action in Washington state. “Or maybe they skip over the facts that don’t fit the narrative they like.”

It’s that last part that’s most worrying. Do they see the news about their rulings — about how the losing side was right all along about the praying coach, or about how their gun history is spotty at best? Do they have any qualms? I’m not sensing they do. A “siren song of a deceitful narrative” can be powerful, even to Supreme Court judges. The reason? It’s because it’s singing a tune they already desire to hear.