The U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to hear a case involving public school prayers by a football coach. On it face, it seems pretty straightforward. Public schools cannot constitutionally endorse a religion through practices like prayer.
And that’s what happened. Joseph Kennedy, a football coach in 2015 at a public school in Bremerton, Washington, started leading students in prayer at the close of games. The school district told the coach to stop. When he continued, they put him on paid administrative leave and then replaced him when his contract expired that year. He then sued. (You can hear from the coach directly in a CBS News documentary last year that I was also in.)
While the lower courts kept ruling against the coach in multiple versions of this suit, the high court now decided to consider it. That means this case runs the risks of justices ruling against the school and turning back more than a half-century of religious freedoms enjoyed since official prayers were rightly ruled unconstitutional. So, why would justices hear this case? Perhaps because defenders of the coach keep claiming his prayers were just “private.”
“By taking this important case, the Supreme Court can protect the right of every American to engage in private religious expression, including praying in public, without fear of punishment,” claimed Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of First Liberty (the conservative Christian group representing the coach).
Similarly, a brief filed by several religious groups (including the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) urging the justices to take up this case claims the coach merely engaged in “private, silent prayer.”
So how “private” was this prayer? Consider a couple images the school district included in its Supreme Court filing of the coach praying.
Private? That reminds me of the classic line from The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
What’s next? Taking a “private” ride on a subway?
Or how about enjoying a “private” concert?
Or how about relaxing with some “private” dining?
Or better yet, how about enjoying a “private” football game?
If we have to lie about the nature of prayer to win a legal case, it seems we have already lost.