If I were a high school social studies teacher, I would love to consider this issue—in all its urgency and complexity. And students, if we let them, just might be able to find answers.
In a case currently before the Supreme Court, justices are being asked to decide whether coaches have the right to kneel in prayer on the 50-yard line (or any other place on the field) at the conclusion of a football game.
Joseph Kennedy, a coach for the Bremerton High School (Washington) varsity team, began praying with his players in 2008. At the end of each game, he would take a knee and say a prayer with his players at midfield.
By 2015 Kennedy was often joined at midfield by players from the opposing team. In fact, it was an approving comment from the coach of an opposing team that first alerted school district officials to the practice.
Soon after, the athletic director, and later the superintendent of schools, ordered the coaching staff to stop praying with students, and Kennedy stopped his prayers at midfield.
But Kennedy, who is a Marine veteran (“I fought for and defended the Constitution,” he has said), re-evaluated his decision and eventually returned to his practice of praying at midfield after games. This attracted even more attention than the earlier prayers and eventually led to the lawsuit which has now found its way to the Supreme Court. Justices are expected to issue their ruling in June.
As a former high school football player, I should note that I am accustomed to prayers on the field, before and after games. Given my team’s dismal record, I imagine my coach prayed during games as well, when he wasn’t yelling at me and my teammates to play better.
My coach also prayed before the typing classes he taught when he wasn’t coaching football, and no one thought much about it. That’s because I went to a Christian high school. We prayed before and after everything. It was expected. The issue before the Supreme Court is whether the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the practice in a public high school which is what Bremerton is.
Given the current makeup of the court, I fully expect the justices to find in favor of coach Kennedy.
What interests me is not the legal argument. Since I am not a constitutional scholar, my thoughts on that subject don’t count for much. I happen to agree that prayer in public schools is problematic for separation-of-church-and-state reasons. On the other hand, I have some training in biblical studies, and I wonder if coach Kennedy has ever read Jesus’ thoughts about performative religion.
Prayers, almsgiving, fasting—these were all activities that Jesus thought should be observed in private. “When you pray,” Jesus said, “do not be like the hypocrites.” Instead, he advised, “go into your room, close the door, and pray” (Matthew 6). Jesus was rarely that specific about other important matters, but performative displays of piety by those in positions of authority? He didn’t leave much doubt.
So, that’s my position on the lawsuit, right?
No, I happen to like the idea that students are being asked to wrestle with this. Students have been quoted as saying that they feel pressure to participate and wonder if their playing time could be affected if they don’t kneel alongside their teammates. What a terrific issue for a high school student to consider—a matter of conscience! Instead of deciding the matter for them, I wish the Supreme Court would get out of their way: Let teachers (and coaches) teach, and let students learn.
I was a high school senior when I received my draft lottery number. That number—it was 9—got my attention, as you can imagine, and started me thinking about the Christian view of war. I read widely (Christian thinkers have written a great deal on the subject), I talked to my parents (one of whom was a World War II veteran), and I consulted my pastor and high school teachers. I had never thought so deeply or urgently about an issue in my life. And looking back, I’m glad I did. I developed excellent critical thinking skills for other issues that would surface later in my life.
I’m deeply concerned that our country is over-policing our high school teachers (and coaches). New laws about what may (or may not) be taught in the classroom will not help our students much. I’m concerned students will not be encouraged (or even allowed) to think about consequential issues, including those (in the words of a recently passed Florida law) that would make them feel “uncomfortable.”
If I were a high school social studies teacher, I would love to present this issue in the classroom—in all its urgency and complexity. And students, if we let them, just might be able to think their way through it.
Photo: Eat your hearts out. That was me at age 17, taking a knee, before the start of the football season my senior year, 1970-71.