This week, the trial of football coach Joseph Kennedy will be heard at the U.S. Supreme Court. Kennedy was fired after he repeatedly prayed at the 50-yard line after football games. According to Kennedy, he was saying a prayer of thanks for his team’s performance: “That’s where I made my commitment to God before I even took the coaching job. There on the field of battle.”
The case against Kennedy is that his public prayer was violating the first amendment’s disestablishment clause—otherwise known as the “separation between church and state.” In his capacity as a public-school football coach, he used his platform and authority to endorse the Christian religion.
This is the argument made by Episcopal priest Randall Balmer in a recent op-ed at the Los Angeles Times. Balmer claims, “Any time prayer is compulsory or coercive in a public context, it can violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which forbids the state from favoring one faith over another (or no faith at all).”
For Balmer, Coach Kennedy’s praying on the football field is “compulsory and coercive” because the school board said so. By their account, onlookers and players felt compelled to join him in prayer and become Christians themselves.
Balmer takes his argument even further and states that even Jesus would disapprove of Kennedy’s public prayer: “[Kennedy’s praying] also violates the spirit of prayer itself.” This is because Jesus once told the people to “pray in secret” and not be like the Pharisees praying in public and making a show of their faith.
Anyone thinking about Balmer’s argument for more than two seconds can see that none of it holds up. All of it rests on a number of faulty assumptions. The first and most obvious one is whether the language of the first amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” actually means prohibiting public prayer.
Does a middle-aged man praying on a football field effectively “establish” Christianity as the religion of his school? Of course not. The only thing that can be established is that Coach Kennedy is praying. That’s about it. What is not established at all is that he is a Christian who expects everyone around him to fall on their knees and confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
On the flip side, does firing a man praying on a football field effectively “prohibit the free exercise” of his faith? Yes, it does. Christians are called to pray often and glorify God in all that they do. When an employer fires an employee for praying in front of others and routinely suppresses public expressions of faith, then “free exercise” of religious faith is no longer “free;” rather, it is significantly limited.
This points to the other faulty assumption made by Kennedy’s opponents: that schools are somehow religiously neutral places. Sure, students and teachers are allowed to practice their faith privately, but for the sake of social harmony in a pluralistic, diverse school community, this must stay private.
Except that schools are anything but neutral. True, they don’t mandate the practice of Christianity, but they will regularly endorse and push ideologies, opinions, and perspectives touching on their students’ personal beliefs. For example, many millennials, like myself, who attended public school in the ’90s, were thoroughly indoctrinated in the cult of environmentalism. We professed our belief in peak oil, the inevitability of global warming and climate disasters, overpopulation, and the moral goodness of renewable energy and recycling—occasionally this had the veneer of science, but many things turned out to be wrong. This was established doctrine repeated every year. Those who disagreed in any way would be stigmatized.
The same can be said for most ideologies and arguments. So many of them are taught as fact with the full weight of the school’s authority. Any dissent will often result in derision and disapproval, if not an actual grade deduction. Accompanying this was excluding any and all expression of religious faith. In this way, nearly all public schools have essentially “established” the religion of secularism.
And what about the idea that Jesus wants His disciples to “pray in secret”? By Balmer’s reckoning, this proves that Jesus taught about the separation between church and state nearly 1800 years before the American Founding Fathers. He didn’t want any believers to pray in public, let alone at football fields.
“But,” as Balmer himself says, “context matters. It matters a lot.” In the context of the Gospels, Jesus is addressing a society that had turned prayer into virtue signaling. Many religious leaders, both Jewish and pagan, would turn their prayers into loud spectacles to project their moral and spiritual superiority. Consequently, much of it was superficial and the important introspection and authentic spiritual conversation with God was neglected.
By Balmer’s logic, all expressions of faith would not be communicated beyond those who already believe; evangelism and conversion would be impossible. Had the Apostles and the Church Fathers taken on this interpretation of Christ’s words about prayer, indeed, there would be no Christianity today. Not surprisingly, as people are now told to keep silent about their beliefs, religious faith continues to decline in the West.
And this attack on Christianity itself seems to be the point of condemning public prayer. A leviathan state (which includes all Western governments today) is naturally antithetical to religion. For the modern secularist, it simply doesn’t make sense for people to be Christians when the government is so large and powerful. As the saying goes, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.” Religious belief and church communities threaten this arrangement, so they must be eliminated.
This is why faithful Americans should pray for a favorable ruling for Coach Kennedy, who represents all Christians in the U.S. He’s not being put on trial because of what he did but because of who he is.
[Photo: Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy in front of Supreme Court (Credit: Getty Images)]