A couple weeks ago, church–state separation scored a huge touchdown when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that a Washington public high school could ask its football coach not to lead students in prayer after games. But some don’t seem to be reacting very well to the court’s decision.

One negative reaction came from Focus on the Family’s President Jim Daly, who recently told TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that “it’s egregious that the government would rule against a coach who’s trying to do all he can do to help those boys.” (Thanks to Hemant Mehta for the tip on this.)

But as the school district realized, when Bremerton High School coach Joe Kennedy consistently knelt at the 50-yard line after games to lead players in prayer, he was pressuring other players to join in – a violation of the U.S. Constitution, whether intentional or not.

Daly, however, does not grasp the importance of public-school employees staying neutral when carrying out their duties. Instead, he suggested that Christian coaches are what students need to develop character. (Of course, if this were a Muslim, Hindu or atheist coach, I doubt his reaction would be the same.)

“It was pivotal for me to have a coach that taught me character, and I think what Coach Joe is doing is wonderful,” Daly said. “And the fact that he’s just going to the middle of the field to thank God that his players are kept safe? I think for the 9th Circuit Court to shut him down and for the school to fire him is egregious.” (Kennedy was not fired. His contract expired and, rather than apply to renew it, he sued the school, demanding reinstatement and the right to pray with students.)  

While Daly is entitled to his personal religious beliefs, there’s no justification for compelling students, including religious minorities and nonbelievers, to participate in Christian prayer at a public school. Public schools are for everyone, not just Christians, and coercive school prayer has no place. The school district did the right thing by recognizing that Kennedy’s actions were unacceptable and asking him to stop. 

Daly's comments about school prayer are problematic and ignore the constitutional rights of students. 

It’s also insulting for Daly to suggest that only religion-based ethics can build students’ character. Public-school students come from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds, and they don’t need to participate in school prayer or follow the religion of their coach in order to build character.

Speaking about groups that often fight for church–state separation in public schools, Daly made some ridiculous statements.

“To me, it seems they [groups like the ACLU and Americans United] would rather see me with a heroin needle in my arm, or having a premarital affair with some girl in high school, or a out-of-wedlock baby,” he said. “I’m tired of it.”

AU joined 11 religious and civil-liberties organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, and we supported the district by presenting arguments before the appeals court. We did not do these things to encourage teenage pregnancy or drug addiction. Rather, our goal was simple: We sought to protect the principle that public schools must remain neutral with respect to religion to protect the constitutional rights of all.

As AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee said after the ruling: “Students and families have the right to decide whether and how to practice their faith. Public schools should be welcoming places for all students and families, and no student should feel like an outsider at his or her school.”

You can help keep public schools inclusive and protect the constitutional rights of students. If you see something that you think may be a church–state violation, report it to us.