If the U.S Supreme Court is honest with themselves about their Kennedy v. Bremerton School District school prayer decision, they’ll admit that this case was not about the right of free religious expression. It’s about religious power: members of one particular faith wielding power over everyone else.
At issue in the Kennedy case was whether a public high school employee—in this case a football coach—can be permitted to gather players and other students on the fifty-yard line after a game to lead them in prayer. Joe Kennedy, the coach in question, said that by forbidding this publicly organized prayer, the lower court forced him to “hide my faith” and sent a message of hostility toward religion.
On the contrary, allowing such an overt endorsement of one religion is what sends a message of hostility—to nonreligious players, players of other religions, and to our democracy itself.
First, let’s remember that silent, personal prayer has always been allowed in schools, public or otherwise. Those who believe in an all-powerful, omniscient god need only think to communicate with their maker, and therefore may pray quietly anytime they like. Indeed, the Bible itself urges this very approach to prayer in Matthew 6:5, saying, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Maybe the coach, who wants to be seen with his flock of pious players on the fifty-yard line, hasn’t read that part yet.
More to the point: Do players find this kind of prayer session coercive? Absolutely. Having played four years of both high school and college football and coached for a season, I know how small gestures affect the time a player is given on the field. Of course a fervently religious coach would consider whether a player is on the right religious “team” when deciding who plays and who doesn’t. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the only guy sitting out the post-game prayer if it might mean sitting on the bench.
James Underdown pictured above as defensive end of the DePauw University Tigers in 1977.
As an atheist, I always felt a bit alienated when my teams prayed before or after games. Praying divided us. We, the team, became you, the ones praying, and whomever else. On some teams, players or coaches say things like “in Jesus’s name” during the prayer, which also excludes Muslim, Jewish, and other non-Christian team members. This pointedly sectarian preaching has no place on the gridiron or any other sports facility. No one ever asked us players if we wanted to pray. And a smart coach finds ways to unite players, not create sects among them.
The entire enterprise of Christianizing public schools serves to create animosity where before there was none. In Bremerton, the post-game public prayer display got so out of hand at homecoming that TV stations arrived, and religious zealots, Satan worshippers, and an elected official were all praying (on camera) “that they may be seen by others.” The school principal called the whole scene “a zoo.”
The early American colonies endured this same “zoo” when Quakers, Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, and others fought constantly with each other over whose religion would be reflected in the law. Our secular Constitution—respecting all religions but endorsing none—was the only solution. It made us the first explicitly secular government in Western history.1
Letting a group of Christians, led by a public school employee, hold a religious prayer session on school property during a school event is a clear endorsement of religion. If you think such prayer is not an endorsement of religion, or it is simply harmless and inoffensive, try replacing those who are praying with Satanists, Jews, or Muslims. Or how about using school time or employees to lead a bunch of atheists affirming that there are no gods? Is it still ok to spend your tax dollars to give a forum to someone else’s beliefs?
And for those who argue that the prayers are nonsectarian, think again. For one, there really is no such thing as a truly nonsectarian prayer. The very act of praying to a god implies a category of religious belief that excludes atheists, agnostics, and strict deists. By praying to one god, you exclude Hindus, pantheists, Wiccans, Buddhists, pagans, and countless others.
No, this is about one set of believers seeking to take over a public venue and turn it into their church. It’s divisive and counterproductive to school spirit and to the spirit of athletic competition. Team unity and school pride aren’t built by separating students or mixing athletics with belief systems about the supernatural.
The solution is simple in a pluralistic, secular democracy. Those who wish to pray to anyone or anything for any reason may do so on their own time, in their own place, or silently to themselves. Their needs are met, and unnecessary religious strife is averted.
1. See, for example, https://www.cnn.com/2015/07/02/living/america-christian-nation; https://peped.org/philosophicalinvestigations/article-short-history-secularism-west/; and https://web.archive.org/web/20080222013645/http://www.ambafrance-us.org/atoz/secular.asp.
If the U.S Supreme Court is honest with themselves about their Kennedy v. Bremerton School District school prayer decision, they’ll admit that this case was not about the right of free religious expression. It’s about religious power: members of one particular faith wielding power over everyone else. At issue in the Kennedy case was whether …