Despite the good intentions of Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, his postgame ritual of leading prayers on the 50-yard line is inappropriate.
The ritual may have started as an innocent effort to support players. But since he defied the Bremerton School District’s order that he stop earlier this month, Kennedy has become a provocateur allied with Texas activists threatening to sue the district.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn correctly sided with the Bremerton School District on Monday, saying it’s important for public schools to take a firm stand against employees leading prayers.
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This is an uncomfortable situation. Some people are deeply offended when public institutions draw a hard line against religious activities. There are gray areas.
But constitutional protections that prohibit public-school officials from leading prayer at school events are clear and they’re not anti-religion — really, they’re just the opposite. The nation was founded by people who sought freedom to worship on their own terms — free from government or a majority pressuring them one way or another.
So we have powerful law — consistently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — preventing the government from telling us how or how not to worship. It basically says government must be neutral and cannot endorse or disapprove of any religious activity.
This special freedom is eroded when a government employee leads a religious ceremony during a public-school activity.
It doesn’t matter whether Coach Kennedy’s prayer ceremony is voluntary or worded in a particular way.
If a school employee leads a prayer during a school activity, it’s being endorsed by the government. The government is no longer neutral.
Even if it’s subtle, any pressure on students to participate is unacceptable. It’s especially hard to avoid this pressure on a football team where cohesion and respect for authority are paramount.
If wording of the prayer is modified or edited in an attempt to pass muster, then government is meddling in the substance of prayer. The cure is worse than the disease.
Of course teachers, coaches and students can pray silently on their own at school. Students can also lead prayers and have Bible study groups after school.
But public-school employees are different. As government employees with influence over students, they must show restraint.
Public employees — whether they are coaches in Bremerton or county clerks providing marriage licenses in Kentucky — don’t have to abandon their religion at the door. But a condition of the job is that they must accept limits, respect the nuances of the Constitution and know that it’s for the greater good.
Some refuse to accept these terms of public service and should choose another job. But their defiance may still become a wedge issue for those looking to exploit constitutional loopholes — such as the historical practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer — and lower the wall between church and state. That’s how Kennedy is being used by Texas-based religious activists and a group of conservatives in Congress that on Tuesday weighed in to support him.
Bremerton school officials must move quickly to resolve this personnel dispute before it spirals further out of control — Satanists joining the prayer circle are just the start.
Kennedy deserves praise and respect for his service to students and the country. A former Marine, he’s helped defend America and the freedom of its people.
It may seem counterintuitive, but allowing public-school employees to lead prayer ceremonies at school events compromises that freedom.