April 2022 Church & State Magazine

Thoughts From The 50-Yard Line: Why My Visit To Bremerton Was Important

  Rachel Laser

Last month, I spent some time in Bremerton, a small city in Washington state. I went there because Americans United is representing the Bremerton School District in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that puts decades of well-established law protecting students’ religious freedom at risk.

The case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, is about a coach, Joe Kennedy, who pressured students to pray with him at the 50-yard line directly following public high school football games. I truly cannot think of anyone better to advocate for our constitutional principle of separation of religion and government before this challenging Court than AU’s Vice President and Legal Director Richard B. Katskee. Please send some good vibes or prayers of your choice on the morning of April 25, when he will be arguing the case.

I went to Bremerton because it felt it was important to connect in person with the people on the ground. I also wanted to stand on the football field and take in the significance of it – for Bremerton students, students all around the country and for the principle we fight for every day. The trip turned out to be one of the highlights of my time at AU. Let me tell you more about it.

Coincidentally, Kennedy had planned a media tour at the field the same week. (His trip to Bremerton was also an opportunity to distract attention from our filing a motion suggesting the Court dismiss the case as moot because we learned he had moved to Florida two years ago; this makes the claim that he would move back to Bremerton for a $5,300-per-year, assistant-coaching gig with year-round responsibilities seem highly improbable.) So instead of our side not being represented in these stories, I stood on the field and talked to ESPN, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, The New York Times, Associated Press TV, three local stations, and many others.

But it wasn’t just me who got interviewed. Courageous locals took time away from work to turn up at the field and advocate for the religious freedom of all students. Paul Peterson, who regularly attended football games, is a (nonreligious) parent who sent four of his kids to Bremerton High School; one was even coached by Kennedy. Paul explained with passion that Kennedy, a former work colleague of his, crossed a line when he held public prayers at the center of the field during a time and place that is usually reserved for pep rallies. Paul said that Kennedy had turned the games into a “spectacle” that detracted from their focus on the kids.

Paul and I were also joined by seven Bremerton clergy, representing Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist and Jewish traditions. These clergy were phenomenal spokespeople for our cause, and they reminded me of AU’s founding 75 years ago, mostly by religious leaders who cared deeply about church-state separation. You should have seen and heard them. Adorned in their religious garb (and many of them also wearing Pride flags and Black Lives Matter lapel pins), they spoke about protecting the religious freedom of their religious minority and nonreligious neighbors.

The Right Rev. Douglas Avilesbernal, an American Baptist leader, referenced his denomination’s memory of when they were a minority in this country and their strong allegiance to the separation of religion and government.  The Rev. Greg Reffner, a United Methodist pastor, talked about how it was time for Christians to renounce Christian privilege. And Rabbi (in training) Emily Katcher reminded us that Jewish students, a tiny minority in Bremerton, must be able to participate in school activities the same as other students. It was moving. I wasn’t the only one there with tears in my eyes.

And imagine this: The only local clergy who showed up to speak out about the case at all were all on the side of real religious freedom.

I left realizing that we should do this all the time when we have legal cases:  empower people in the community to organize, drum up press and win support for AU from their neighbors, coworkers and friends. AU did what we do best: We joined together the religious and nonreligious to defend everyone’s freedom to believe or not as we choose.

Yes, the Court’s conservative bent makes this case a tough hill to climb, but the vast majority of Americans are on our side, which this trip once again demonstrated. It was inspiring!

Rachel K. Laser is president and CEO of Americans United.

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Americans United for Separation of Church and State joined 29 religious freedom organizations in filing an amicus brief that explained how anti-discrimination laws like Colorado’s protect religious minorities as well as LGBTQ people and customers with other protected characteristics, such as race, sex, age and ability.

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