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Opinion: The Supreme Court prayer ruling sets precedent for tolerance

Americans today are sorely lacking the ability to tolerate each other’s differences. Forbidding people to exercise their religion only feeds this problem

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The U.S. Supreme Court Building is pictured.

The U.S Supreme Court in Washington, Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

It has been said there are no atheists in foxholes.

American football, with its blitzes, bombs, aerial attacks and ground game, has been compared to a benign version of war. As author Michael Oriard wrote for Slate several years ago, during both world wars the game became “a mimic war requiring cool thinking, self-sacrifice, and physical courage.” And injuries happen a lot.

Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that prayer has often been a part of it.

When I played the game for a public high school in Phoenix 45 years ago, prayer was a pre-game ritual. Although my teammates all went to a different church than I did, and certainly some of them went to no church at all, I don’t remember any discussion or dissent about this. No one told me they felt the school was trying to establish a religion.

That certainly was not the case for Joseph Kennedy, who was a high school coach in Bremerton, Washington, before his postgame prayers cost him his job in 2015.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the school district was wrong to let him go. As Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote for the majority, “… the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”

It is, in other words, neutral, which implies a high level of tolerance.

That’s something a lot of Americans seem incapable of exhibiting on their own these days. The high court “wants a theocracy,” the hosts of ABC’s “The View” said. A Vanity Fair headline said the ruling, “Smashes what’s left of separation between church and state.” 

Let’s look at the facts, then you decide.

According to the majority opinion, Kennedy began his postgame ritual in 2008, offering prayers quietly by taking a knee at the 50-yard line after each game for about 30 seconds. He wanted to give thanks for “what the players had accomplished and for the opportunity to be part of their lives through the game of football.”

At first, he did this alone. Over time, players began asking to join him. Eventually, most players on the team did so after games, and often players from opposing teams would join, as well. Kennedy began adding motivational speeches to the prayers. He said he “never pressured or encouraged any student to join.”

This went on without complaints for seven years, until someone from another school told the school district superintendent about it, innocently intending to express how much he liked the practice.

That led to a letter from the district to Kennedy, instructing him to cease both that practice and the locker room prayers that had been a tradition at the school since before he was hired. Kennedy’s right to freely exercise his religion, the letter said, “must yield so far as necessary to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.”

He complied. But while driving home after a later game, he felt the weight of having “broken (his) commitment to God.” So he returned to the darkened stadium to say a prayer. Then, through his lawyer, he sent a letter to the district asking for permission to offer private prayers on the field after players had left the field. The district declined his request, forbidding him to engage in any actions that “appea(r) to a reasonable observer to endorse … prayer” while working as a coach.

Kennedy then decided to silently bow his head after the next game as players were singing the fight song. Before he finished, several players and fans had joined him. By now, the media had been alerted, and they covered this act of seeming defiance. The district then announced that the field would be off limits to the public after future games, and that the Bremerton Police would enforce the policy.

The district told Kennedy that, although he hadn’t actually uttered a prayer, a “reasonable observer” could think his actions were a government endorsement of religion. Kennedy subsequently knelt silently and alone after two more games.

This back-and-forth ended when Kennedy was placed on administrative leave, then given a poor performance evaluation.

Citing an earlier ruling, the court’s majority said, “A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition in which learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities has always been ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.’”

There’s that word, tolerance, again. 

In retrospect, the prayers my team offered all those years ago probably were unconstitutional because I wasn’t given the choice to not participate. Still, I hardly believe any of my teammates suffered harm because of it.

Tolerance, author John R. Bowlin wrote, is a virtue. It allows us to live amid differences we do not endorse. You don’t have to look too far in today’s world to see that many people have missed that lesson in life.