Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Praying Coach, Establishing Religion?

            Some people may look at football and believe that the fans of the sport could almost belong to a faith centered around; however, this time, we see a case where a suit was filed over the establishment of religion through sports. The case, which is currently in the early stages of a lawsuit, surrounds assistant high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, who would walk to the 50 yard line alone, and take a knee in prayer as a thank you for keeping all players involved in the game safe, a practice that dates back to when he was hired in 2008. Slowly, through his time at the school, players began to join the coach in taking a knee at the 50-yard line to come together. A key point to be acknowledged here is the consideration that all players went to the 50-yard line voluntarily, and could choose not to at any point; however, many decided to join, not through peer pressure, but rather, because they believed that those moments were able to bring together the team. The perfect example of the players’ feelings towards the practice can be demonstrated by team captain at the time that this case began to gather attention.

            Ethan Hacker, football team captain and an agnostic, discussed the post-game activity with reporters, saying “It’s about unity. We can be mad at each other all we want during the game and get upset, but once the game ends, that all goes away.” Hacker went on to discuss how it is through this practice that Kennedy is able to bring all of the players together again. However, if one believes the mentality of acceptance towards this practice is limited to just the players, they would be incorrect, even amongst parents of players, the practice is not seen as an endorsement of religion, even enjoyed by some. When Hacker’s mother spoke to the press, she backed her son, saying what the practice meant to the players, despite her atheistic background. Therefore, Kennedy was shocked when the district notified him that he could no longer perform this activity as the district feared the legal consequences should the rights of its students or spectators be violated. Following the homecoming game, where Kennedy did perform his seven-year-old tradition, Kennedy was suspended from his job. Kennedy has now filed suit saying that he faced unnecessary backlash from his employer because he chose to exercise his religious beliefs.  

            Therefore, this case must be examined on a legal level to decide if the district, based on their fear of a lawsuit caused by the ruling from the case of Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, acted correctly. The district stated that this court decision demonstrated how prayer was not allowed at the high school football games, and that this alone provided enough reason to force the coach to stop. Simply stated, the court believed that the actions being performed by the coach would reflect a school endorsement, or establishment, of religion. The error in this logic is that Kennedy’s prayer is different from that of the one described in the Santa Fe Independent School District case in that this is not a public prayer. The prayer is said privately by the coach after he leaves the players, without inviting anyone to come with him. Rather, the players had approached Kennedy and requested to join him, and he did not say anything more than “it’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do”. Moreover, the prayer is said by the coach with his eyes closed, making him unaware of any of those who are the vicinity of him, or watching him. This evidence clearly demonstrates that the act is completely voluntarily on the part of the players, and occurs as a private act as Kennedy has now concluded his coaching obligations, and is merely expressing his religion. Simply stated, by the coach performing this action after his coaching duties have finished, no reasonable observer could believe that Kennedy is still using his role as an assistant coach to force players to participate in a private less than 20 second prayer of thanks.

            As outlined in the previous paragraph, when this case reaches the courts, it will be analyzed on whether or not these actions by the coach were a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The reason that this case does not constitute a violation of the establishment clause is because of the inability of the government to regulate a private citizen’s actions or speech, something guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Constitution. The reason that this is private speech versus government speech is because the timing of the actions by the coach. Kennedy would not go to midfield until after the game, as well as all of his coaching duties, were complete. By waiting until this moment in time, the result was that the coach was no longer acting as a representative of the school; but rather, acting as a private citizen, making it so that limiting his speech was a violation of his First Amendment rights. Furthermore, because of the timing of these actions, a reasonable observer is able to see that coach Kennedy is not using coercion to make players attend; rather, players are free to make the choice between leaving, or joining in the practice. This is important because the lack of coercion makes sure that the act is voluntary for all present. By making this act voluntary, it ensures that coach Kennedy is not taking advantage of his role as coach to make people join him.

            Therefore, based on the facts previously presented, the actions performed by coach Kennedy do not constitute an establishment of religion that the school district feared would be seen. This case is unable to be related to Santa Fe Independent School v. Doe due to the fact that the circumstances of this case are different, as previously outlined. Furthermore, the discrimination being felt by Kennedy is only increased by the school not even allowing Kennedy to have a moment of silence, which would not provide a clear link to any religion. By not even allowing the moment of silence, the school is not only displaying a clear hostility towards religion; but also, not even allowing the coach to participate in a secular activity. Therefore, based upon the aforementioned facts, the act that the coach was performing was not un-Constitutional; but rather, the act was Constitutionally protected by the First Amendment which ensures that all private citizens have the right to exercise the religion that they choose. Based on this conclusion, the school district should face penalties for infringing Joseph Kennedy’s Constitutional rights.

Side Note: It is important to note that the letter also referenced another activity that the coach would perform in giving his pre-game speeches. However, upon being notified of this issue, as well as the fact that the pre-game speech was not voluntary, the coach immediately stopped any reference to prayer, so as to comply with Constitutional rights.


Natalie K. said...

I agree with your position on this topic, especially the important distinction you made between private and government speech. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the government permitting student-led and student-initiated prayer before public high school football games was clearly a violation of the Establishment Clause because it was considered public government speech. The government was unconstitutionally forcing the school's audience to participate in a religious act by authorizing the student that recites the prayer, approving the subject of the prayer, and supporting the tradition of pre-game prayer itself. In this case, Kennedy's moment of silence or simple prayer of thanks is not "public" in the sense that the act is completely voluntary and no one is forced to participate in it or even remain silent during it. The government is by no means funding the speech and is not controlling the content of the moment of silence that Kennedy and his team partake in.

Thomas M. said...

I agree with your opinion that Kennedy's rights were being infringed upon. By trying to separate religion from secular institutions, harmless practices that offer benefits have been removed in an attempt for equality. From reading your synopsis, and the article, there was an general willingness for this moment of silence amongst the team. The practice offered positive benefits, according to many team members, and it was completely voluntary. Some courts practice an overzealous approach to the separation between church and state, causing constitutional rights to be infringed upon in many of these First Amendment cases.

Rosalie said...

I agree with your position, but for slightly different reasons. I think that there can be problems with establishment of religion in sports because the coach is acting as a representative of the school. Sports teams represent their school, and if that school is a public institution it is allowing religion to work its way into public events. Despite if the prayer is student initiated, public schools cannot represent themselves at games as promoting religion due to the Establishment Clause. In this case, I think that simply kneeling on the ground is not an inherently religious act as long as there are no spoken prayers to go along with it. I viewed kneeling more similar to a moment of silence, where the players are acting in unity to consider personal messages. Furthermore, Kennedy cannot back his will to partake in his tradition due to "it's a free country" because he and his team are representatives of their public school.