In late April, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in one of the more contentious prayer-in-public-schools cases to come down the pike in a while.
It concerns former assistant football coach Joe Kennedy, a retired U.S. Marine, who lost his job for taking a knee in prayer on the 50-yard-line after games at Bremerton High School in Washington state. See tinyurl.com/yc7zckuy.
As journalist Robert Barnes explained, the case "brings vexing questions about the ability of public employees to live out their faith while on duty and the government's competing responsibility to protect schoolchildren from coercion and to remain neutral on the subject of religion." See tinyurl.com/e5uczkt4.
The dilemmas raised by Kennedy v. Bremerton School District are tough ones. Now, after years of the case winding through lower courts, the Supreme Court has decided to sort it out. Good luck to the justices. May they be granted the wisdom of Solomon.
Kennedy is a native of Bremerton. He'd been a troubled kid who bounced around group homes and foster care before joining the Marine Corps. Twenty years after enlisting, he returned to his hometown.
"I had never been particularly religious, but my wife persuaded me to go to church," Kennedy wrote in a recent op-ed for the Wall Street Journal. "I felt God was calling me to be a better husband, so I committed my life to him." See tinyurl.com/33ja57d4.
Although he had no football experience, he was offered a part-time job as an assistant coach for the local high school.
"The Bremerton High School athletic director seemed sure that my experience training Marines to work as a team was all the qualification I needed to be a football coach," Kennedy wrote. "As I weighed the opportunity, I caught the movie 'Facing the Giants.' It seemed an answer from God. I committed to coaching football and promised God that I would take a knee by myself in quiet prayer at the 50-yard line following every game, win or lose."
Both sides of the dispute appear to agree Kennedy began this expression of his faith as a personal act of devotion, with no larger agenda. He prayed for 15 to 30 seconds at midfield for several years without objection from parents, players or administrators.
But gradually his prayers became a thing. A few Bremerton players started joining Kennedy when he knelt. Then more players joined. Then players from opposing teams.
In 2015, school officials became worried that the post-game prayers, led by a school employee, might be construed as an official endorsement of Kennedy's Christian faith and that players who weren't religious would feel pressured to participate.
"My commitment with God didn't involve others," Kennedy insisted in his op-ed. "It was only to pray by myself at the 50-yard line after each game."
Kennedy's coaching contract wasn't renewed. By this time, lawyers were involved, naturally. One thing led to another. A U.S. district court and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Kennedy's right to kneel in prayer.
Because the current U.S. Supreme Court has a solid conservative majority, there's speculation the high court justices might overturn the lower courts' decisions and roll back prohibitions against prayer in public schools.
Several NFL players (Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, Chicago Bears quarterback Nick Foles and former NFL quarterback Drew Stanton, among others) have filed an amicus brief on Kennedy's behalf, argued that if he'd taken a knee at the 50-yard-line to protest racial injustice, his school district wouldn't have objected.
"That practice, like Kennedy's prayers, is controversial -- courageous to some and offensive to others," the players said, according to CBS News. "But if Joe Kennedy had taken a knee to protest racial injustice, the district almost certainly would not have argued that his speech was somehow the state's. Rather, there would have been no question that it was protected private speech." See tinyurl.com/2p8rbprv.
Other NFL veterans -- including former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and former NFL running back Obafemi Ayanbadejo -- have sided with Bremerton school administrators.
We'll see how the justices rule.
I've always been an advocate for the separation of church and state. I'm opposed to nearly all forms of state-sanctioned religion at civic events.
This hearkens back to my upbringing as a Southern Baptist, when the Baptist mantra still maintained we must keep the state out of the church and the church out of the state, because to mix the two was to corrupt both. That's still a wise view, worth holding onto.
And yet. In this case I'm casting my lot with Kennedy. Bremerton school officials, and the lower courts, overreacted.
Separating church from state should never mean individuals can't carry their religious convictions into public places, even if they happen to work for the government, as long as they don't actively discriminate against citizens with other beliefs.
If a coach takes a knee to thank God for protecting kids during a hard-fought game, or to thank God for the opportunity to coach, that's his right as much as it's your right not to kneel. Public property belongs to him as much as to any other citizen.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling, Ky. You can email him at