The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on Kennedy v. Bremerton. At issue is whether Joseph Kennedy, a Washington state high school football coach, was exercising his rights to free speech and free exercise of religion by leading his players in the post-war prayer. game on the 50-meter line of the school football field. , or rather violated his employer’s reasonable policies to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The High Court has increasingly extended the rights of individual citizens to express their religious beliefs and practices in public places over the rights of others to be free to participate in religious ceremonies against their will.
The case affected me both as a Baptist pastor and a former college football player. I believe that religious freedom in our public schools is best protected by ensuring that school officials do not conduct religious exercises. It’s better for our churches and our democracy. Three specific episodes from my past illustrate why this case matters.
As a 10-year-old evangelical Christian playing Pop Warner football in Catholic-dominated Staten Island, New York, in the mid-1960s, I was at a loss when our team coaches asked us to join hands, d bow your head and recite the Ave Maria prayer together. It wasn’t part of my Christian devotion and I felt left out in a setting that shouldn’t have been religious in the first place.
Reflecting on this today, I know that if I were a coach, I wouldn’t impose my own faith on others in the same way, even if I was in the majority. To love my neighbor is not to force my neighbor to respect my religious rights. The religious group that is majority in a given area should not dictate how everyone prays. At the same time, culture is sometimes a challenge for minority religions, and learning to live faithfully in the face of a dominant religion can strengthen one’s own faith. This Hail Mary prayer did not violate the First Amendment because it was not a government activity, but it helped me decide what I think is right.
As a quarterback for the University of Miami football team in the mid-1970s, I was an active member of our community of Christian athletes. The Christians in the team prayed together regularly, and we invited other football players and staff to do so with us. Many did, some didn’t. No one was forced to participate. It was a free exercise of religion protected by law at a private university. As students, we understood this as our right to voluntarily pray this way or not.
As a pastor, I was invited in the mid-1990s to speak to the Lake Highlands High School football team and pray before their game at a team meeting. The coaches made sure to hold the conclave at the church across the street from the school to avoid school sponsorship. The team walked together in silence from the locker room to the church and settled on the pews. I did my part with an unsettled feeling that it didn’t seem voluntary. I could not have imagined that students who were not Christians felt the freedom to break the team spirit and withdraw, even if a license holder could have been granted. I declined a later invitation to take over that role, and also declined the invitation to offer a prayer over the stadium speaker system before a game. Whether religious prayer meeting was a right is legally debatable, but it didn’t seem right.
Religion has a binding effect on groups that is too easily manipulated. Within voluntary faith communities, this constraining factor has a salient purpose. However, when religion is inserted into the public sphere without regard to the consent of those gathered, it can alienate some who have the right to participate in non-religious events without discrimination. These are daily challenges that we must negotiate with care and grace.
But when a public school official insists on his right to pray as he gathers student-athletes to the 50-yard line after a football game, even rejecting attempts by school administrators to house him in a another place or at another time, the answer is clear to me. The framework requires that the coach’s request for free exercise cannot override the valid concerns of the school’s Establishment Clause. Peer pressure to join a coach in prayer robs students of the true freedom to conform to their own conscience in matters of religion.
The government is not hostile to religion when it restricts such practices; it is honoring the religious freedom of students by doing so. Religion flourishes best without government assistance. When city officials protect the public sphere from attempts by government-paid employees to have their free speech imposed on others against their will, they are doing a service to the American ideal of religious freedom.
The happy end of our efforts should be the meeting of our rights with what is right. In Kennedy v. Bremerton, school authorities have been right to defend the rights of those who believe that religious purposes should not be advanced by any government employee, regardless of their sincere religious beliefs.
George A. Mason is senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and president of Faith Commons. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.