’Tis the season of coercion for the illegitimate majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 6-3 ruling on Monday, June 27 – three days after overturning Roe v. Wade – the Justices ruled that a football coach could lead his team in prayer at a public school. The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton, involved Coach Joseph Kennedy’s right to pray in the Bremerton High School locker room before kickoff and on the field at the end of games.
The decision is more than a dismissive wave of the hand at the right of children to be free from religion. It is also filled with falsehoods. Writing for the majority, Neil Gorsuch said Kennedy “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.” This is a lie, and makes it sound like Coach Kennedy was seeking to pray alone in a corner but was being hounded by an evil secular school district, pitchforks and torches in hand. The opposite is true. In the dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor took the unusual but welcome step of exposing this lie by including photos of big groups of players surrounding the coach as he led the team in prayer. The students, far from being “otherwise occupied,” were part of the prayer circle.
In addition, the school district bent over backward to accommodate Kennedy so he could pray on his own, but he insisted on taking it to midfield, about as public a place as possible. He was seemingly daring the district to do something.
Even the first line in the majority’s decision is false. It reads, “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach in the Bremerton School District after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.” No one was fired for praying. He was put on paid leave after repeated refusal to listen to the school’s administration and then declined to reapply for his job. There is a greater issue that the majority, in their zeal, chose to ignore: the freedom of the students to not pray. I’m sure they would say that this freedom remains, and no one has to pray if they choose not to. But anyone who has ever played high school sports knows that if your coach is doing something and expects you to join, then you had better do it. To stand out and say, “I am Jewish” or “I am Muslim” or “I am an atheist” – or even simply “I don’t want to do that” – is to be labeled a distraction and lose playing time. That is why this is not about freedom but coercion.
Last year, I published The Kaepernick Effect, a book detailing case after case of high school athletes who were harassed and hounded by their coaches for taking a knee during the national anthem in protest of racial inequity and police violence. In this country, taking a knee is currently a separate but unequal enterprise. If you are a white Christian and do it in the name of freedom of religion, you are a hero to powerful people. If you are a 16-year-old kid tired of seeing dead bodies in the streets, your only right is to shut up and play – or bear the consequences.