Christ cross

Does the SCOTUS decision on prayer in public schools cross the line between church and state?

Among the many rulings by the United States Supreme Court this week was a ruling in favor of former Bremerton football coach Joseph Kennedy. Coach Kennedy lost his job at Bremerton High School in 2015 for praying on the 50-yard line after games. He sued and ultimately won in the Supreme Court.

KUOW’s David Hyde reported on the case this week. He reviewed what he learned with Kim Malcolm.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: Remind us of what Kennedy did that led to him losing his job and ending up in this court case.

david hyde: In 2008, Joseph Kennedy becomes an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, but he is also an evangelical Christian. Part of what being an evangelical means is that you’re supposed to spread the gospel. Kennedy decides to do something that we often see professional athletes do after football games, which is to pray. But he doesn’t do it quietly for himself. He’s praying right there on the 50-yard line in a very public way, and often with players from his own team or even other teams. Kennedy would never have asked them to join them. They actually asked if they could join him in prayer.

What did the school do in response?

They said, wait, you can’t do that, there’s separation of church and state, your actions are coercive. They’ve actually had complaints from parents, about kids feeling like they have to participate in this prayer, fearing that this guy is the coach, he decides whether or not I can play. So the district tells him to cut it. He continues to pray on the 50-yard line, although a little less publicly, and in the end his contract was not renewed.

How did the coach defend himself?

He says his right to pray is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. I had the chance to speak to him on decision day. He said:

“This is an absolute great day for all Americans of all faiths or no faith. Our freedoms are very well represented here.

The First Amendment protects speech, but also religion. The state is not allowed to restrict people’s religious practices. This is what his legal team supports in the case. But remember, the state is not allowed to favor one religion over another. It was also important for the founders.

You interviewed a member of the clergy in Bremerton about the decision, the Reverend Kathleen Kingslight. How did she react?

She leads St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bremerton. Although she is a strong believer in prayer, she called the Supreme Court’s decision an attack on religious freedom: “It’s a Navy town. We have children who came with their families. We have Sikhs, Muslims, Jews and Christians of all brands and allegiances. You cannot pray one prayer and have it for all. It does not work.

She told me that she personally knew children who felt pressured into prayer by this coach, some of whom weren’t really religious. She felt that this Supreme Court decision was an attack on religious freedom, not only for people who do not practice religion, but also for people of other faiths, including other Christian players who have felt compelled to pray with this evangelical Christian coach.

Do we still have any idea how this decision might affect larger issues about prayer in public schools and the separation of church and state?

That’s a very good question. I am not a legal expert. From what I’ve read, it’s not entirely clear. The majority in that case ruled that this coach should be allowed to engage in what Judge Gorsuch called a short, private and personal prayer, but that was already allowed. A lot of people say that’s a really weird way to describe what Coach Kennedy actually does here on the 50-yard line, often surrounded by players. It doesn’t feel so private or personal. But it seems likely that at a minimum this decision will lead to more people in schools engaging in similar acts of prayer, and we’re also likely to see more court cases.

What happens to Kennedy now? Will he get his job back at Bremerton High?

He told me he was waiting for the call from Bremerton to get his job back. His legal team says that’s exactly what the Supreme Court decided in this case. I contacted the district, but so far I have not had a response.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.