According to various news outlets including CNN, the assistant high school coach for Bremerton High School was suspended this past week on paid leave after a decision from the district’s school board ejected him from his duties, just before the final regular season game. While he was able to see the athletes he’s helped lead from the stands at their final game, he wasn’t where he wanted to be: there beside them on the field. All of this due to the fact that he was told that he could not pray after the games, as he routinely did at the 50-yard line. Team members were known to voluntarily come alongside him and pray as well.
The official statement from the school board said this:
“While the district appreciates Kennedy’s many positive contributions to the BHS football program […] Kennedy’s conduct poses a genuine risk that the district will be liable for violating the federal and state constitutional rights of students or others…“
“The prayer sessions with students clearly violated the Establishment Clause. The District cannot allow students’ rights to be violated simply because none of them complain. Embedded in the federal court precedent […] is the reasonable expectation that students will feel coerced to go along with religious activity that is led or endorsed by their teachers and coaches. It is very likely that over the years, players have joined in these activities because to do otherwise would mean potentially alienating themselves from their team, and possibly their coaches. The District has a fundamental obligation to protect the rights of all of its students.”
Joe Kennedy has already made national headlines in September when he was ordered to stop the prayers, with the reasoning being that his own practice could be perceived as a district endorsement of what they see to be a violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Kennedy has consistently prayed after games since 2008.
The Liberty Institute, a faith-based legal organization in Texas dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty in America, according to their website in the link, is representing Coach Kennedy, and they state that the school district is in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which grants religious accommodation. They have tried to meet with district leadership in person for discussion, but there was a refusal of meeting. Communication has only been by phone, and it resulted in a letter banning private prayer. The group’s spokesman said, “It is unfortunate this school district is choosing litigation instead of a simple meeting.”
Since the September ordering of ceasing his prayers, Kennedy has been surrounded with supporters, yet at the last game, he attracted his share of detractors, as members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle were invited by some faculty and students at the school to attend as a sign of religious equality. Their presence there caused incidence with many Christians who found their showing unnecessary and sensational in nature. The September letter from the district has said that Kennedy is permitted to speak to members of both teams after games, as long as religious expressions are excluded (prayers or otherwise). The district’s superintendent, Aaron Leavell, posted on the district’s website:
“The district is in no way taking away an athletic coach’s freedom of expression…What we are doing is what every state-funded agency and school district must do: abide by the laws that govern us.“
The district has reportedly offered a private location for Kennedy’s personal prayer after games. Optional areas offered included the school building or in the stadium press box, but reportedly, Kennedy declined. They have stated that Kennedy’s council will accept nothing less than Kennedy being granted the ability to pray specifically at the 50-yard line. The statement issued this week repeatedly shows that Kennedy has not lost his job, but he is ordered to cease his prayers in a public setting as they could be seen as district endorsed. Kennedy feels that he cannot give up in fighting for his right to pray on the field, as it stands as a testament to the young players he coaches that when you really believe in something, you have to stand up for it.
Where Should Christians Stand On This?
Immediately, various Scriptures come to mind in relation to this situation:
Matthew 22:20-21 (NKJV)And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
For the Christian, we will always be divided on who do we listen to ultimately: the directives of God through the Holy Spirit, or the edicts of national law. It doesn’t take much to see that this situation (as well as the various stories in recent months following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges) that Christians are now in a situation of choice in almost any form of public expression of their faith and beliefs. Ultimately, I believe that Jesus’ word here should embolden us to make a stand for Him; that if a decision must be made of what side we are to align with, let it always be with that of our King, Jesus Christ. A difficult stance, yes, in these overly politically-correct times we live in, but it should not be a decision at all.
Romans 13:1-2 (NKJV)Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
Ready for things to get a little murkier? Here, we see Paul tell us that we must be subject to the governing authorities. But – Jesus just said that we must align with God, right? Peter’s stance seems to gel perfectly with what Paul shared:
1 Peter 2:13-17 (NKJV)Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.For this is the will of God, that by doing good you may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men – as free, yet not using liberty as a cloak for vice, but as bondservants of God. Honor all people. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the king.
Here again, we see that if our governance gives us a rule, we should follow, as to silence those who would speak against us for not following. Still, what about what Jesus said? Well, as I said, in situations of true conflict between the righteousness of what Jesus commands His people and what government, whatever it’s form, might otherwise command, Jesus’ command should stand supreme and be followed. If the statement from the school district is to be believed for what it says, Kennedy’s prayer is not being prohibited; the district just doesn’t want his public expression to be seen as their expression. If they are indeed offering Kennedy a place to pray after the game, the location should not matter for the prayer he lifts up. In initial reaction to this story, I saw this as government squelching religious practice, and I felt compelled to rally to Kennedy’s side as a fellow believer in Christ. Still, if he is absolutely resistant to praying anywhere else but in front of the crowd in the center of the field, I start to change my perspective.
Matthew 6:5-6 (NKJV)“And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.But you,when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; andyour Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.
Jesus, Himself, stated that sincere prayer should not focus on our locale or particular audience; it is, in fact, when done sincerely, direct communication between us and God. Can prayer take place in front of others? Yes. Is it required to pray in front of others? No. Prayer can be either public or private, but never should it be done solely as an expression only meant for the eyes of men. When we are praying, where we are praying and who we are around should be irrelevant to the matters that are on our heart. If alone or surrounded, we shouldn’t worry about the impression we may make on man, only on sharing what we feel we must with God.
I don’t know Kennedy’s heart or its intention. None of us can, but he and God know. I can only look at the reported facts, and make an objective position based in light of the Scriptures. Please understand that I don’t mean to be divisive in this assessment or to demean Kennedy in any way, but the apparent demands of he and his council complicate the issue. If his prayer is sincere, God will hear it, wherever it may be said, either alone or surrounded with other believers. Still, I think what we can gain from this story is that when conflicted between the matters of those in power over us and what God has commanded, we should stand up for our religious beliefs. I believe that we should be able as American Christians to express our faith freely, and I cannot approve or appreciate resistance to those expressions, as I believe they are constitutionally provided rights in this country. I believe that Kennedy should be able to pray freely, and if others want to pray with him, it is their right, regardless of their age or position. If the players gain inspiration in joining their coach in praying to God, then something beyond a communication with God has taken place: the young men potentially benefit in character by seeing someone stand up for what they believe.
For me, this all comes down to a question of motivation: what are we praying for, or rather, what are we engaging in prayer for? Are we doing it to talk to God, or show ourselves before man? I must be clear: we mustn’t ever “express our faith” just for the purpose of gaining the attention of others. When we do that, we aren’t doing right. We should be able to pray when we want to, about what we want to, but it should always be done for the right reasons.
I wish Kennedy the very best as it sounds like he is sticking to his position, as he should if he is making a stand solely for His Savior. Time will tell how this situation resolves itself between the coach and his district, but one thing is certain of whoever “wins”: ultimately, Jesus and His will stands supreme.
Colby Bryant currently serves as the Music/Youth Minister of Oak Grove Baptist Church in Hugo, Oklahoma, and he served as Pastor of Archey Baptist Church in Soper, Oklahoma for several years prior. He and his wife, Stephanie, have three children. He enjoys adding to his extensive knowledge and collection of movies and TV by watching and collecting as many as he can, and he gets in as much video game and tabletop playtime as his schedule will allow.
*** John 14:6 - Jesus said to him, "I am The Way, The Truth, and The Life. NO ONE comes to the Father except through me." ***
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