Coach Joseph Kennedy did the players a disservice

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Isaac Weiner is Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University. He is the author of “Author of Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism”.

In its recent decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Supreme Court has upheld high school football coach Joseph Kennedy’s right to pray in midfield after his team’s games.

He dismissed concerns about how his act might put pressure on his students or imply public endorsement of Christianity.

The court focused only on his individual rights, not how exercising those rights might affect others.

As constitutional law expert Jamal Greene has suggested, part of that is a problem with how we think about rights in this country. We assume they are limited in number but absolute in power. If someone claims a right, we consider it non-negotiable, so we spend more time debating whether something is a right than figuring out how to arbitrate or compromise between competing interests.

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After:Supreme Court backs prayerful coach Joseph Kennedy who knelt on the 50-yard line after games

Yet that’s not really how things are supposed to be when it comes to religion in the workplace. It turns out that there is a well-established process for accommodating religious practices in the workplace that offers a more productive path.

Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, employers have a duty to accommodate the religious practices of their employees unless it would cause an “undue burden.”

But in its published guidelines on religious discrimination, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission points out that employers are not obligated to accommodate the needs of the employee in the precise manner requested. Instead, finding the right accommodation is an iterative process that requires patience and flexibility from both sides.

Managers and employees need to communicate with each other about the nature of the problem and consider different options to resolve it.

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The goal is to find a mutually acceptable solution that takes into account the needs of all parties, including co-workers.

Isaac Weiner is Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University.  He is the author of "Author of Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism."

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The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines do not address the constitutional issues raised by Kennedy’s position as a public school official, but they are instructive nonetheless. They make it clear that asserting a religious right should be the beginning of a conversation, not its end point. They push us to consider not only what is due to us, but also what we owe to others.

This is the kind of process that Coach Kennedy short-circuited by turning too quickly to the courts and public opinion.

He rejected the school district’s efforts to find a mutually satisfactory compromise. Instead, he launched a media blitz, insisting to the local press that “only a demonstrative prayer on the 50-yard line immediately after games” would do. He then sued in federal court.

After:I know how coercive team prayers can be. The Supreme Court is wrong to side with Coach Kennedy.

How could things have turned out differently if Kennedy had been required to participate in a process of negotiation in good faith before seeking legal recourse?

What if he had taken the time to do the hard work of listening to his critics and addressing their concerns?

Bremerton assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, masked center in blue, is surrounded by Centralia High School football players as they kneel and pray with him on the field after their game against Bremerton on October 16 2015 in Bremerton, Washington.

Unfortunately, we will never know because Kennedy chose a different path.

Concerned only with asserting his own rights, acting and praying in the precise manner he wished, he refused to give any credence to the interests of others.

As a coach tasked with meeting the needs of all his players, he was inexplicably indifferent to their prospects.

After:We are Muslims and Jews. We needed the Supreme Court to side with Coach’s Christian prayer.

That’s why I thought the most astute response to the Kennedy case came from my 12-year-old son.

Having just finished his first season of public school sports, as one of the only Jews on his seventh-grade baseball team, I wanted his take on Coach Kennedy’s act.

“How would you feel,” I asked him, “if your coaches knelt in Christian prayer after every game and the rest of your teammates started to join in? Would you feel compelled to join , you too ? “

He looked at me blankly, thought for a moment, then dismissed the terms of my question: “My coaches would never do that,” he explained. “They’re like the nicest people in the world.”

Isaac Weiner is Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University. He is the author of “Author of Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism”.

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