Does This Coach Have a Prayer?

By Mark A. Kellner | Posted January 25, 2021

Can a high school football coach “take a knee” on the 50-yard line after a game to thank God in a prayer? Religious liberty advocates say “yes,” a local school district says “no,” and federal courts are once again asked to decide the matter.

The case, to be argued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on January 25, began in 2015, when the Bremerton, Washington, school district suspended Bremerton High School football Coach Joe Kennedy from the final game of the season. School officials said Kennedy’s private prayer at the center of the field—something permitted for seven years beforehand—violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which bars governments from establishing a state religion.

The 2021 court appearance “will be the second time the Ninth Circuit hears the case.” In the first instance, back in August 2017, Kennedy lost in a ruling that concluded “that public employees are not protected by the First Amendment when they engage in religious conduct that is visible to others.”

The decision was surprising enough that several associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanagh, “issued a statement expressing serious reservations about the Ninth Circuit’s decision.” The Supreme Court, nonetheless, declined to hear Kennedy’s appeal at that time.

If, however, the Ninth Circuit rules against Kennedy again, First Liberty Institute, a legal advocacy group representing the football coach, opined: “The issue will have been set up for the Supreme Court, which now adds the presence of Justice [Amy Coney] Barrett to the other Justices who have already spoken out about this crucial issue of religious freedom in this case. … If successful, the result could mean that millions of Americans no longer have to choose between their jobs and their faith.”

All Religions Welcome?

So, what does it take to “establish” a state religion?

According to a Bloomberg Law news article, “The coach’s ‘demonstrative’ prayer fits the criteria the circuit has previously set for declaring a public school employee’s at-work religious expression to be public speech because it was done in the presence of students, at a school event, and while Kennedy was working in his official capacity as a coach, the school district says. It acted lawfully when it placed him on leave for failing to stop his open praying because it otherwise risked being seen as endorsing Kennedy’s faith, [the] Bremerton [school district] says.”

Also jumping into the action was a local chapter of the Satanic Temple, which was invited by the school’s senior class president “to perform a satanic invocation” after the last football game as a form of protest against Kennedy. The satanic group is a staunch proponent of the separation of church and state. “If they are creating an open public forum for religious expression, on the 50-yard line, then they have to make it open to all,” said Lilith Starr, the head of the satanic chapter.

Pastor Doug Batchelor answered a question on Bible Answers Live dealing with this very subject. In that call, he said, “People often quote where Thomas Jefferson talked about the wall that separates church and state. He wasn’t saying that religion should have no influence on government, or Christian principles should have no influence on government. He was saying that the government should never dictate what the denomination of the state should be, which is what happened in Europe and in England.”

God’s Law of Freedom

So, did Kennedy’s prayer dictate the denomination of the state? Or is it more probable that Kennedy wasn’t imposing anything on anyone? He just knelt for 15 seconds and prayed. He didn’t call students to gather around; he didn’t pray so others could hear. Was his motive to draw attention to himself or to thank God for whatever had taken place during the sporting event?

Roaring lions

Kennedy’s experience is reminiscent of that of the prophet Daniel, who was also castigated for the simple act of praying. Jealous government officials, in a ploy to oust Daniel from power, deceived the king into signing a death decree for anyone found petitioning anyone else other him for 30 days (Daniel 6:6–9). The officials then deliberately spied on Daniel, knowing that the prophet prayed regularly at an open window facing his home temple in Jerusalem (vv. 10, 11). Subsequently, though even the king himself attempted to save him, Daniel was thrown into a den of lions, a sure death sentence, for disobeying the new law (v. 16).

But Daniel did not die. God “shut the lions’ mouths” (v. 22) and delivered His prophet from his enemies. “I was found innocent before [God],” was Daniel’s response to the king, “and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you.”

Of course, there are prominent differences between these two accounts, but the Bible warns that someday, impugning actions by the government will occur against all of God’s people, whether in the privacy of your own home or on the city streets in broad daylight. It won’t matter where you are or what title you hold; if you are following God’s law over the law of the nation, you will suffer the consequences.

How will that happen? Watch this sermon by Pastor Doug, “Freedom and Liberty,” to find out!

And for a beautiful message on the significance of Daniel in the lion’s den, try “From the Lions’ Den to the Angel’s Den,” one of Pastor Doug’s Bible studies on the personal faith we need to have every day.

And know this: Judges, governments, and men’s laws come and go, but “the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Kellner
Mark A. Kellner is a staff writer for Amazing Facts International. He is a veteran journalist whose work has been published in Religion News Service, The Washington Times, and numerous computer magazines.

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