Public Schools

Bremerton Faith Leaders Rally Around Constitution, Not Coach

  Andrew L. Seidel

One of the things that brought me to Americans United was the organization’s ability to bring everyone together to defend the First Amendment – regardless of religion or lack thereof. We are more likely to win these crucial legal fights when we link arms together to oppose those who would abuse government power to impose their personal religion on others.

Americans United has built just such a coalition in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. This Supreme Court case is about a coach who violated the religious freedom of students by pressuring them to join his prayers at the 50-yard line at public high school football games. We filed our brief last week and oral argument will be next month.

The coach is represented by a powerful legal group that is tapped into a billion-dollar shadow network that’s singing a “Siren song . . . a deceitful narrative of this case.” But the Bremerton faith community – the people who are on the ground dealing with the division the coach and his attorneys have sown – are supporting Americans United.

The Rev. Kathleen Kingslight, rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bremerton, explains: “the separation of church and state is so important. It is the gift that our Constitution has given us and we don’t want it destroyed by cases like the one that we’re facing right now.”

The coach’s attorneys argue the school district violated his religious freedom but Rev. Kingslight understands that it’s the religious freedom of the students and players that has been violated by the coach. This is a case about the “misuse of power,” as Kingslight put it, not religious freedom.

The Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal, the Executive Minister of the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, recognized the danger of the Supreme Court ruling for the coach, instead of the students and school district. This case “could blur the line between church and state and it could take us into a space where freedom is reduced…”

The Rev. Susan Griggs of Tracyton United Methodist Church near Bremerton is also a retired school psychologist and brought that expertise to bear: “All school staff knows that they are not the ones to teach children about religion and religious beliefs, that is the prerogative of the parents.”

Sporting BLM and LGBTQ ally pins, the Rev. Gregory Reffner of Brownsville United Methodist Church in Bremerton endeavored to walk a mile in the students’ shoes:

“I’m thinking back to when I was a high school student and I know that I would wonder, “Geez, what would happen if I don’t go [to these prayers]? Will I get playtime next week? Will the coach assume something about me? What will my peers and other players think? Will they think I’m not a team player?” Even having those questions live in the minds of students is a signal to us–it should be a signal to us–that the separation of state and church is at jeopardy…”

Amen. Again, this is not a question of the coach’s religious freedom, but about the religious freedom of students. The law doesn’t allow public school teachers and coaches to use their position of authority and influence to impose their religion on other people’s children.

Oral argument is scheduled for April 25 and on that day, in front of the Supreme Court, you’ll see diverse, local religious groups standing alongside AU and the school district. You’ll see local Bremerton clergy who aren’t seeking political power, but who came to D.C. to show the justices that they are interested in protecting genuine religious freedom for all. The local school district, local families, and local clergy are fighting for true religious freedom in their Bremerton community . . . while the coach up and moved to Florida.

The facts, the law, the families, and the clergy are all on the right side of history – let’s hope the Supreme Court is too.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

Act Now