Why Did the U.S. Supreme Court Side with a Prayerful School Coach?

By Richard Young | Posted June 30, 2022

A unique contribution that the United States made to the world is the concept of “separation of church and state.” The logic behind the idea is simple.

Government works by force, by penalty, if one breaks its laws. For example, most people who obey the speed limit do so not out of concern for the safety of others but because the state has the power to fine them if they don’t. We follow many other laws and pay taxes because, to put it bluntly, we are forced to do so by the threat of force.

In contrast, religious faith, the worship of God, means nothing if it is coerced by civil authorities. A century before the founding of the United States, British writer John Locke—known to have influenced Thomas Jefferson—wrote: “Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another, as to compel any one to his religion.” These were radical words at a time when the “civil magistrate” could jail you for the “wrong” faith. 

Ultimately, we should be worshiping and obeying God because we choose, out of our own free will and out of love for Him, to worship and obey Him—and not because we’ve been made to do so by civil authorities. 

Hence, the principle of church-state separation in the United States: to keep apart, as far as possible, that which, by nature, must be coerced (human law) from that which, by nature, must be freely given (faith).

Prayer in School 

The principle hasn’t always been easy to put into practice, consistently and without blurred edges, as church-state separation law in the past century has shown. A recent example: The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of a high school football coach who was fired for praying on the 50-yard line after each game.

A man was fired in the United States of America for praying?

The issue, however, is more complicated than that and needs some background. Over the decades, in various school-prayer suits, the Supreme Court has generally voted against public prayer led out by school officials or with school support. Though easy to depict these rulings as anti-religious, as “God being kicked out of schools,” the church-state separation principle rests behind them.

First, no student, or teacher for that matter, is forbidden from praying in school. The moment, however, prayer becomes part of the curriculum, or in any way part of the school apparatus itself, the threat of spiritual coercion, however minute, arises. Thus, in order to protect a child from any sense of coercion, the courts have not allowed it.

After all, who might a school official be praying to—Jesus, Krishna, Odin, or Molech? And what about those students who didn’t believe in any god at all? What pressure, however subtle, might they have felt to conform when a coach takes time to pray in the open? 

Years ago, an editorial cartoon showed an elementary school child in the Bible Belt being asked to lead a class in prayer. “O Buddha,” the child intoned, “from the great beyond.” That might be fine if other students believed in Buddha, but what about those who didn’t? Would they be forced to participate or allowed to get up and leave? Laws against teacher-led or school-sanctioned prayers in schools were designed to prevent problems like this, and the Supreme Court usually ruled in favor of such laws, effectively preventing official prayer services of any kind in K-12 public schools.

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District

In one recent case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the High Court seems to have taken a different turn. “The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in favor of a high school football coach who lost his job because of his post-game prayers at the 50-yard line. By a vote of 6-3, the justices ruled that Joseph Kennedy’s conduct was protected by the First Amendment.”

For about six football seasons, after a game ended, Bremerton High School football coach Joe Kennedy would walk to the middle of the field, drop to a knee, and pray. He didn’t ask students to join him; it was simply his own prayer ritual on public grounds. Sometimes he would be alone in his prayer; sometimes, other players and coaches, including from rival teams, would join him. Each prayer lasted about 30 seconds.

When the 2015 season was about to start, the Bremerton School District told Kennedy that he must stop his practice of praying on the football field because, according to them, such actions violated the Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from promoting a particular faith.

How could a few people praying, without coercing anyone to follow, be establishing a religion? Again, this goes back to the difficulty of applying the principle of church-state separation to every situation. In this case, where might it end? If Coach Kennedy wants to pray on school property, what would stop local Odin worshipers from wanting to exercise the same privilege? In fact, the Satanic Temple of Seattle petitioned the school district to allow it to pray alongside the coach after each game. The idea, of course, was to keep anything like this from happening during school events at all.

The Ruling

Arguing that the practice did not violate the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court majority said that the school’s actions “rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” In a dissent, the minority argued that the key question in the case was “whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event.”

Though the ruling seems innocuous, the reasoning behind it could lead to, perhaps, more government intrusion into what must, ultimately, be a private matter. With another recent Supreme Court ruling that allows government money to go to a religious school, a practice previously forbidden, many see this court as eroding the wall of separation between church and state and the religious freedom protections that the Constitution guarantees. Only time will tell.

Though the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District decision hardly seems dangerous, Bible prophecy does predict that, one day, religious freedom in America will be destroyed and that the “civil magistrate” will, indeed, use force to promote one version of faith. How could that happen, and how can we be prepared when it does? To learn more, check out our Study Guide “The Mark of the Beast.” 

Richard Young
Richard Young is a writer for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.

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