April 2022 Church & State Magazine

Fact, Fiction And Football: Americans United Counters Deceitful Narrative In Bremerton, Wash., School-Prayer Case

  Liz Hayes

In one media interview after another, Americans United has been emphasizing the facts and dispelling the fiction in AU’s Ken­nedy v. Bremerton School District case that will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on April 25.

“This is a case about a coach who was pressuring his players to pray with him at the 50-yard line, violating their religious freedom, after every high school football game. Repeatedly,” AU President and CEO Rachel Laser said during an interview for a prime-time report on CNBC’s “The News With Shepard Smith.” “If this were a case about a teacher or a coach’s right to pray privately, we wouldn’t be here.”

“Church-state separation, which is guaranteed to all of us by our Constitution, means that no child should have to choose between being part of a team and their religious freedom,” Laser told Seattle TV station KOMO News. “And that’s what happened in this case.”

AU Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee, who will argue the case on behalf of Bremerton School District, told The National Law Journal’s Supreme Court reporter Marcia Coyle that AU has been calling out what 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Milan D. Smith Jr. called a “false” narrative presented by the coach’s attorneys because AU doesn’t want the court or anyone else to be misled by “six years of falsehood.”

“This is really different,” Katskee said for Coyle’s story about the unusual public dispute over the facts in a case before the high court. “The Ninth Circuit specifically called the other side out on making stuff up. From their cert petition and through bringing our brief in opposition, we felt they were really doubling down on things the 9th Circuit said weren’t true and selling the court on what didn’t really happen here.”

In the same KOMO News report that featured Laser, one of former coach Joseph Kennedy’s attorneys from the conservative legal group First Liberty Institute claimed that Kennedy’s prayer practice involved “taking a knee in private prayer by himself for 15-30 seconds after a football game.” But photos included in that report and many others told a different story – there are multiple images of the coach praying with groups of student players; several show him standing over the kneeling students, holding football helmets in the air.

During a March trip to Bremerton, Wash., to meet with community members and stand on the same 50-yard line, Laser was joined by several Bremerton faith leaders to speak to an array of Seattle-based television stations and national media outlets about the case.

The clergy united with Laser to speak out in support of church-state separation and religious freedom for students – and everyone else. Also joining them was Paul Peterson, a Bremerton parent whose four children attended the district; one child played football under Kennedy several years before the prayer practice was stopped in 2015.

“As a parent, you should have the opportunity to raise your children in the way they want to be raised. That’s the job of the parents, not the job of the school district,” Peterson told The Washington Times. The coach’s post-game prayers with students became “a spectacle.” He added: “It became something that it isn’t. It’s a football game –  we are there to celebrate the kids and to support them.”

But the coach’s lawyers, backed by a shadow network of well-established, well-funded groups using this case as a pawn to impose their own religious and political agendas on our country, continue pushing the deceitful narrative that he was fired for simply saying a quiet prayer by himself.

Let’s compare some of the facts with the fiction presented in this case:

Did the coach lead students in public prayer, or pray privately and quietly alone?

FICTION: The coach’s lawyers allege that his prayers were “brief,” “quiet,” “personal,” “private,” and “by himself.”

FACT: Pictures clearly show the coach’s prayers were not quiet, private or conducted while he was by himself.  For seven years, the coach stood at midfield immediately after games, holding up the helmets from both teams, and delivered motivational prayers to the students, who kneeled around him. He invited opposing coaches to participate, and players from opposing teams often joined. The coach himself described his prayers as “audible” and involving students, and he demanded that students must be allowed to join.

Were students coerced to join the prayers?

FICTION: The coach’s lawyers allege that players joined in his prayer practice “voluntarily.”

FACT: The record shows the coach’s prayers had a coercive effect on his players. For example, the school district learned from a player’s father that his son felt “compelled to participate” because he feared that he otherwise “wouldn’t get to play as much.” Other players’ parents reported that their children had “participated in the team prayers only because they did not wish to separate themselves from the team.” Players and their parents thanked the school district for putting an end to “awkward situations where they did not feel comfortable declining to join with the other players in Mr. Kennedy’s prayers.”

Was the school district willing to accommodate the coach’s desire to pray?

FICTION: The coach’s lawyers claim the school district would allow him to pray only in a private location, “effectively banishing religious expression from public view.”

FACT: The school district tried repeatedly to accommodate Kennedy’s desire to pray at work. Bremerton officials said he could pray on his own, but that he could not deliver prayers to or pray with students during school activities, because that could cause “alienation” of “team member[s]” who did not wish to participate.

How did the coach’s employment with the district end?

FICTION: The coach’s lawyers repeatedly say that he “lost his job” because of his prayer practice, and conservative media often claim he was fired.

FACT: After he repeatedly defied the district’s request that he stop the public prayer rallies with students immediately after games, the coach was placed on paid administrative leave – accompanied by yet another offer from district officials to work with him to find a suitable accommodation for personal prayer. But he did not respond to that offer and remained on paid leave for the rest of the season, after which his standard one-year coaching contract expired. He chose not to reapply to coach the following year; instead, he sued the district.

The coach now lives 2,800 miles away – is the case moot?

FICTION: Being hired back as a coach – a job that provides a $5,300-per-year stipend and requires year-round, in-person duties – and being allowed to have public prayer on the 50-yard line are the only things the coach is asking from the court. His lawyers claim he’ll move back to Bremerton if he wins the case.

FACT: Due to family hardships and obligations, Kennedy sold his home in Bremerton, Wash., left his full-time job and moved to Pensacola, Fla., almost two years ago. He and his wife bought a house in Pensacola, registered to vote and call themselves “Floridians.” As Katskee noted to Coyle, “The Kennedys really did have good family reasons [to move]. That was the right thing to do. But you have to ask, do all those things make it more likely or less likely they’re going to turn around and be on the next plane to Bremerton? It doesn’t strike me as very plausible.”

Bottom line: This case is about a coach who violated the religious freedom of students by pressuring them to join his public prayers at the 50-yard line at public high school football games. Church-state separation means that no one should ever have to choose between their religious freedom and being part of the team.

Americans United has warned that our country’s foundational principle of church-state separation, a critical component of our democracy, is imperiled if the Supreme Court overturns decades of established law that prevents government employees from pressuring students to pray in public schools. It would be a radical departure from the accepted standard supported by both liberal and conservative justices since at least the early 1960s.

“It’s a very dangerous day in America to think of all the school children across this country where schools are supposed to welcome children, feeling alienated and potentially ostracized if they don’t pray to play,” Laser told the Seattle NBC affiliate King 5.

Have you or a public school student you know felt pressured to participate in religious activities or felt alienated because of your religion in a public school? Share your story at au.org/get-involved/actions/school-story and help AU shine a light on why it’s critical that our public schools be inclusive to all students and ensure teachers and coaches are not promoting religion or compelling anyone to take part in religious activities.

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