Yesterday, Joe Kennedy, an assistant high-school–football coach in Bremerton, Wash., was suspended. His offense? Kneeling for a short on-field prayer after football games.
According to multiple news reports, for the last several years Kennedy has waited until each game ends and the players leave the field before walking to the 50-yard line and offering a quiet prayer for his students. He never asks anyone to join him, nor does he stop anyone who wants to do so. Moved by his example, a number of players pray beside him — and at least one agnostic student takes the opportunity to enjoy an “uplifting” moment of meditation.
By the school district’s own admission, despite seven years of mid-field prayer, no student complained. Indeed, district administrators weren’t even aware of Kennedy’s routine until “an employee of another district” mentioned it to them. At that point, the district — claiming liability risk — demanded that Kennedy stop praying at mid-field, offering to provide him a “private location” instead. Kennedy declined, continued praying at mid-field, and was summarily suspended.
I agree with Kennedy’s lawyers — my friends at the Liberty Institute — that the district likely violated his right to religious liberty. But it’s doubtful the district would have taken action against Kennedy absent two extraordinarily malicious, anti-Christian legal doctrines developed by our lawless federal courts.
#share#The first is the slow but steady perversion of the Establishment Clause — originally intended to bar the establishment of a European-style national church — into a hammer wielded against an increasing range of public religious expressions and acknowledgments, even at the expense of American history. Thus, Ten Commandments monuments must be removed from public land, despite the Decalogue’s undeniable contribution to American law and moral development. War-memorial crosses have to be pulled down despite their long-held status as a symbol of remembrance in an overwhelmingly Christian nation. And God (or judge) forbid that any high-school student actually see a teacher pray on the job.
#related#These monuments, memorials, and prayers don’t actually “establish” a religion. They instead acknowledge the reality of a nation populated by a religious people whose religious heritage has shaped this country from its founding. But the Supreme Court has re-imagined the Establishment Clause as a catch-all provision that increasingly “protects” Americans not from actual coercion but instead from mere hurt feelings.
And that brings us to the other malicious legal development — a distortion of so-called “standing” laws that has allowed citizens to sue towns, school districts, and other public entities simply because they are “offended observers” of religious symbols or religious practices they don’t like. As I’ve explained before:
Essentially, the Supreme Court has carved out an exception to normal rules of standing (which require a plaintiff to establish a concrete harm to their rights) for the special purpose of challenging any government acknowledgment of religion. As a practical matter, this has been one of the most divisive and biased procedural elements yet devised in constitutional law. Under this unique doctrine, a few plaintiffs can undo decades of community consensus and rip apart long-standing traditions — not because they have been coerced in any way but simply because they were “offended” when they heard a public prayer or saw a nativity scene on public land.
The doctrine, however, only recognizes certain kinds of offense. Does it offend a single atheist to see a cross on public land? Tear down the cross. Does it offend other Americans to see a cross yanked from the ground? Too bad: That’s the price of living in a free society.
In a world of constitutional common sense, voluntary individual prayer — even in full view of the public — isn’t an “establishment” of religion but the free exercise thereof. Yet in federal court, the Constitution often takes a back seat to anti-religious dogma, and judge-made “law” provides school districts with the pretext they need to stretch the boundaries of censorship.
Public-sector Christians, pray at your peril. The state does not approve.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.