Across the ideological spectrum, there were predictions of dramatic consequences when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a public high school football coach’s right to pray on the field after games.
Yet three months after the decision — and well into the football season — there’s no sign that large numbers of coaches have been newly inspired to follow Joseph Kennedy’s high-profile example.
“I don’t think there has been a noticeable uptick in these sorts of situations,” said Chris Line, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which advocates for the separation of church and state.
“But the real issue is not going to be the number, because there’s always going to be people like that who want to use their position to push religion on other people,” Line said. “The difference now is whether school districts are going to do the right thing about it.”
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 for Kennedy on June 27, saying the Washington state coach had a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard-line. The conservative justices were in the majority and the liberals in dissent.
In a phone interview, Kennedy and his attorneys at First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal group, lauded the ruling. But the former assistant coach said he hasn’t seen “really any difference, good or bad” since June. As far as football games go, he said, “it seems to be pretty much the same.”
“I think everybody’s trying to figure out what’s next and especially at the high school level ’cause this came out right before the season,” he said.
A majority of U.S. adults approve of the Supreme Court’s decision, according to a new poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The poll shows 54% of Americans approve of the ruling, while 22% disapprove and 23% hold neither opinion. The survey also shows that solid majorities think a coach leading a team in prayer (60%), a player leading a team in prayer (64%) and a coach praying on the field without asking the team to join in (71%) should all be allowed in public high school sports.
Kennedy began coaching at Bremerton High near Seattle in 2008. He initially prayed alone on the 50-yard line at the end of games. Students started joining him, and over time he began delivering short, inspirational talks with religious references. Kennedy did that for years and also led students in locker room prayers. When the school district learned what he was doing in 2015, it asked him to stop out of concerns of a possible lawsuit over students’ religious freedom rights.
Kennedy stopped leading prayers in the locker room and on the field, but wanted to continue kneeling and praying on the field after games. The school asked him not to do so while still “on duty” as a coach. When he continued, it put him on paid leave. The head coach of the varsity team later recommended he not be rehired because, among other things, he failed to follow district policy.
The case forced the justices to wrestle with how to balance the religious and free speech rights of teachers and coaches with the rights of students not to feel pressured into participating in religious practices. The liberal justices in the minority said there was evidence that the midfield prayers had a coercive effect on students and allowed Kennedy to incorporate his “personal religious beliefs into a school event.”
“The biggest mistake that happened out of the Kennedy decision was that the Supreme Court justices focused so much on the coach’s rights … and they just completely disregarded the view of students,” said Line, of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Since the ruling, Line's group has received some prayer-related complaints, including one about a North Carolina coach holding a prayer service and a baptism on the field, and several about pregame prayers over public address systems at high schools in Alabama. Line is convinced that more coaches previously cautious about team prayers will be emboldened to emulate Kennedy.
“That’s definitely going to happen. I just don’t know how widespread it will be,” Line said. "In the past, school districts, I think, felt a lot more comfortable to say, ‘Hey, knock it off.’ And now some school districts may misinterpret this and be afraid to protect their students.”
John Bursch, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, praised the high court's ruling.
“I don’t think that in the months since the decision that there’s been much conflict in the public square other than by those who want to completely eliminate prayer and religion from the public square altogether,” Bursch said.
Rachel Laser is president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represented the Bremerton school board in the case. She lamented that the Supreme Court “adopted the deceitful narrative that Kennedy was praying quietly and to himself.” She also worried that it will encourage other coaches and teachers “who view public schools as a mission field.”
Laser said it’s too early to assess the ruling’s impact, and suggested some students may be fearful of speaking up.
“We won’t get reports of every case like this because it takes a lot of courage even to file a report online, let alone to pursue it,” she said. “Our plaintiffs have had their windows shot through, their pets killed, received death threats and have been ostracized in their community — the full gamut of terrible things.”
Some public school coaches in Alabama, Oklahoma and Tennessee acknowledged feeling vindicated by the ruling and said they would continue to pray with students, but declined to be identified publicly because they didn't want to draw attention to their teams.
Others worry the ruling could have a negative impact.
Steve Sell, longtime athletic director and football coach at Aragon High School in San Mateo, California, said athletes competing for playing time could feel pressured to pray to please their coach.
“It’s dangerous,” Sell said. “I don’t like any situation that puts kids in a situation where they really have to make that hard choice or they have to choose between going against their personal beliefs and jeopardizing whatever position they have on the team.”
In the highly diverse San Francisco Bay Area, he said, “there’s a strong likelihood that on a given team you could have three or four different religions.” For a coach to presume all their players not only are religious but worship the same God, he added, is “not the case, and it's something that has no place in our public education.”
Meanwhile, Kennedy, who has not returned to coaching yet, said he has received support from peers across the country.
“One thing they don’t want to do is walk on eggshells and people having to hide their faith or their practices,” he said. “You got enough things to think about. The last thing they should be thinking about is, ‘Are my rights being infringed on?’”
“It was really great to have hundreds of coaches just say, ‘Dude, we did it!’ And it was like a big group effort,” Kennedy added. “And a lot of people prayed for this to happen. And it just shows that the Constitution is alive and well.”
Associated Press writer Gene Johnson in Seattle contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.