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Freedom, Faith, and Football

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    Joe Kennedy was put on leave from his coaching job for refusing to stop kneeling in prayer with players and spectators on the field after football games. Kennedy took his case before the U.S. Su-preme Court. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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    Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, obscured at center in blue, is surrounded by foot-ball players as they kneel and pray with him on the field after a game on October 16, 2015. (Mee-gan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)
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    Joe Kennedy, at center in blue, is surrounded by football players after praying on the field. (Mee-gan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)
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    Paul Peterson holds a photo of his son, who played football for Bremerton High School in 2010. Peterson supports the Bremerton School District’s case against former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy. (AP/Ted S. Warren)
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    The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (AP/Alex Brandon)
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Joseph Kennedy used to coach football at Bremerton High School in Washington. After games, he would walk out to the 50-yard line and pray by himself. Before long, students joined him. He also led pre-game prayer in the locker room, as other coaches had done before him.

But someone objected to his public display of prayer. He opted to leave coaching for a time.

Now his case has gone to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Here’s how it happened: When the school district found out about all the praying, officials asked him to stop. Kennedy ended the locker room prayers—but he kept praying on the field by himself. That’s when the school district put him on paid leave. He could keep praying or he could keep coaching. Well, he couldn’t stop praying, he thought. Having that choice forced on him eventually led to this court case.

Since Bible times, governments have punished believers for prayer. But is Kennedy’s case as clear-cut as King Darius throwing Daniel to the lions?

The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution prevents the government from creating an official religion. That means public schools can’t teach one religion as truth. A coach or teacher can’t pressure students into religious activities like prayer. This protects the religious freedom of students.

But school workers have the right to private religious expression. For example, a Christian teacher can pray over his lunch, even if students can see him. Coach Kennedy’s school district admits this.

So why can’t Kennedy pray on the field? According to the district, he represents the school when he prays after games. Students might feel pressured to join.

High school coaches influence the lives of players. They decide who gets to play and who makes varsity. They can even help those students earn scholarships. The school district thinks Kennedy’s players might feel pressured to pray with him, even if they don’t want to, just to earn his favor.

But Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh has pointed out that Kennedy never asked students to join. Justice Amy Coney Barrett asked what makes Kennedy’s prayers any different than a teacher leading a church youth group after school. Several justices agreed that the school district’s choice might mean trouble for the free speech of school workers.

Prayer isn’t the only way teachers and coaches express their faith. Faith comes out in kindness toward students, good sportsmanship, doling out discipline with grace and mercy, and a thousand other ways. Can Christian coaches and teachers really leave their faith outside when they walk through the school doors? And should they have to?

The Supreme Court still hasn’t reached an official decision. Watch this story on the WORLDteen website for an update later about Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

Why? Good laws protect freedom by preventing the government from establishing an official religion. But those same laws can be twisted to take religious freedom away.