High School Football Coach Defies Order to Halt Postgame Prayers
As I wrote in my book Football, Faith, and Flannery O'Connor: A Love Letter to the South, sports and faith go hand in hand. Watch any movie or television show about football long enough and you'll see somebody uttering a prayer in the locker room or on the field -- usually it's the Lord's Prayer, because Hollywood writers can't seem to bother to try to write an original prayer, but I digress.
Two recent instances at my alma mater, the University of Georgia, underscore the relationship between sports and faith. At the September 26 game between UGA and Southern University, Southern player Devon Gales took a hard hit and sustained a severe spinal injury. During the timeout, players from both teams spontaneously knelt in a prayer for healing. During Georgia's October 10 contest against Tennessee, star running back Nick Chubb tore a ligament in his knee. UGA head coach Mark Richt embraced a tearful Chubb, praying with him in a heartfelt, poignant moment.
Unfortunately, like so many other expressions of faith today, the tie between football and prayer is under attack. The latest example involves Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Washington. Coach Joe Kennedy has led his team in postgame prayers f0r seven years. These prayers simply express thanks for the young men who had the chance to be a part of the game. Often, players from the opposing team would join them.
Back in September, the school district launched an investigation into Coach Kennedy over his prayers with the team following games. The district sent a letter to Kennedy to cease postgame prayers with the football team. According to KOMO:
In a statement released last month, the school district said, "Our coaching staff can continue to provide motivational, inspirational talks to students before, during and after games and other team activity. However, talks with students may not include religious expression, including prayer."
Although Coach Kennedy’s prayers are verbal, he does not pray in the name of a specific religion or deity, and he does not say “amen.” Each post-game prayer lasts approximately 15 to 20 seconds, during which Coach Kennedy is unaware of who may or may not be in the vicinity. Coach Kennedy’s sole intent, as motivated by his sincerely-held religious beliefs, is to say a brief prayer of thanksgiving and then move on. Coach Kennedy has never received a complaint about his post-game personal prayers.
To summarize, Coach Kennedy engages in private religious expression during non-instructional hours, after his official duties as a coach have ceased. He neither requests, encourages, nor discourages students from participating in his personal prayers, or coming to where he prays. His prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate the beliefs of others. And he has never received a complaint about his post-game personal prayers. Under these circumstances, there is no constitutional prohibition against Coach Kennedy’s private religious expression, regardless of whether students voluntarily come to the location where he is praying.