Last week, a federal appeals court ruled that a public-high-school football coach in Bremerton, Wash., doesn’t have the right to lead players in prayer. An Americans United legal fellow, Andrew Nellis, argued before the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, so we’re quite familiar with it.
Evangelist Franklin Graham isn’t happy about the ruling. He also apparently doesn’t understand it. In a Facebook posting, Graham asserted, “The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that coaches can’t pray or make religious gestures on the field after a game. These progressive activist judges have gone too far.”
The problem is, the court did not say that a coach can’t take part in truly private, individual prayer before, after or during a game – nor did it say anything about “religious gestures.” The court ruled on what Coach Joe Kennedy was doing: kneeling in prayer on the 50-yard line in a public display that effectively coerced players and other students to join him. The ruling doesn’t prevent coaches from praying; in fact, the school district made arrangements for Kennedy to pray in private, but he turned them down.
Religious Right evangelist Franklin Graham is urging high school football coaches to try to do an end run around a recent federal appeals court ruling.
As Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. noted for the court, “by kneeling and praying on the fifty-yard line immediately after games while in view of students and parents, Kennedy was sending a message about what he values as a coach, what the District considers appropriate behavior, and what students should believe, or how they ought to behave.”
(Graham is also wrong to call Judge Smith, an appointee of President George W. Bush, a “progressive activist judge” – but we’ll leave that aside.)
This case was never about Kennedy and his rights. It was about the rights of the high-school students to pray, or not, according to their own beliefs and practices. School officials, aware of their legal obligations and the need to host a welcoming environment for all students, did the right thing by asking Kennedy to stop.
An angry Graham has a solution: “At next Friday night’s game, on September 1, I think it would be great if football coaches across the country went out on the field wherever they are and prayed. And those there to watch the game stand in prayer with them. Let’s show our support for Coach Kennedy, a former Marine who didn’t back down on prayer. Will you spread the word to a coach you know?”
Graham may think he’s calling for some hip form of civil disobedience, but all he’s really doing is putting coaches at risk and arguing for an oppressive form of majority-rules, my-way-or-the-highway prayer. That’s what official school prayer has always been about: a large group running roughshod over everyone else simply because it is a majority and believes it should have that power. The courts put a stop to that a long time ago, and Americans United isn’t about to stand by and let it happen now.
For the truly devout, private prayer is always an option. Those who say that’s not enough, those who insist on a public display of piety and who seek to impose that on others, usually have an agenda that has more to do with scoring points in a culture war than with communicating with the Almighty.
To learn more about this case and what the appeals court really said, check out this Facebook Live featuring Nellis and AU Legal Fellow Claire Hillan. And should you get wind of a coach attempting to put Graham’s reckless scheme into action, let us know.