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The Supreme Court Is Tackling Prayer at High School Football Games. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The Supreme Court Is Tackling Prayer at High School Football Games. Here’s What You Need to Know.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments about one high school football coach’s right to take a knee and pray at the 50-yard line after a public school football game. The decision promises to re-ignite culture wars around the sensitive issue of religious freedom in the public square.

Joseph Kennedy was a coach for the Bremerton, Washington High School Varsity and JV football teams, who started praying with players before and after games. At the end of the game, he’d kneel at the 50-yard line to pray with any interested members of both teams. When school officials heard about the practice, they told Kennedy he couldn’t do that anymore and, for a while, he obeyed. But the more he thought about it, the less he liked it. “I fought and defended the Constitution, and the thought of leaving the field of battle where the guys just played and having to go and hide my faith because it was uncomfortable to somebody — that’s just not America,” he told NPR. He started his prayers again, with some lawyers in tow.

The media got wind and the prayers became a very big and very controversial issue in Bremerton. News camera crews started showing up to games in efforts to catch the prayers, and supporters and critics alike started protests around the field. The homecoming game got downright chaotic, with NPR reporting that “a largely pro-prayer crowd mobbed the field, overcoming the extra security presence and knocking over some band members and cheerleaders.”

The school maintained that Kennedy had a right to pray with any players who wished to join, but could not do so at official public school functions, since that would be seen as a religious endorsement and violate the separation of church and state. Finally, the school superintendent placed Kenny on administrative leave for refusing to follow school policy. He declined to re-apply for a new contract the following school year.

Kennedy then sued school officials, saying their ban on prayer violated his First Amendment right to free speech and the free exercise of religion. The school board disagrees, saying his prayers were not the private exercise of religion, but a public one that took place at an official event.

“What’s at stake here is really the ability of teachers and coaches to engage in religious exercise while on duty,” former Solicitor General Paul Clement told NPR. It is “established beyond doubt at this point that students are allowed to engage in a degree of religious exercise on school grounds,” he notes, adding that this case “will clarify the law [as to] whether teachers and coaches have comparable rights to students.” Clement is representing Kennedy before the Supreme Court.

“[Kennedy] was at the center of the field at an event the school district hires coaches to run,” argues Richard Katskee, who is representing the school board. “He insisted that he be surrounded by students, and he was delivering a prayer that they could hear. To call that personal and private just doesn’t make any sense.”

Experts say the Supreme Court’s decision could have consequences that reach far beyond football game prayer sessions. Prayer was banned in public school in 1962, but the Supreme Court has lately trended towards emphasizing the free exercise of religion over concerns about religious endorsement. The division between public life and religious expression has always been fraught in the U.S., and the ripples of this decision could either blur the lines or define the lines in a different way than most lawyers currently understand that separation.

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