Note: This piece originally ran on May 8 and is reprinted in light of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision in favor of Joseph Kennedy.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
Imagine if a Flagler Palm Coast High School football coach who happened to be Muslim decided one day after a game to spread his rug on the 50-yard line, point its pretty mihrab design toward Mecca, bow his callused forehead to the ground and intone a Muslim prayer cadenced to Allahu Akbars.
It is doubtful that a) the coach, having an instinct for self-preservation, would do that in the first place; b) that the crowd would be anymore welcoming than a gun-rally flock was to Borat; or c) that anyone would join him, whether Muslim or out of ecumenical solidarity. In a district where even wearing a rival school’s shirt could get you booted off campus, it’s not difficult to guess that the coach’s fate would not be an exalted one.
You don’t have to imagine this next scene. It’s at the heart of a U.S. Supreme Court case. Joseph Kennedy was a coach at a high school near Seattle. A Christian coach. He took a knee–no, not that knee–and prayed at the 50-yard line after games, a gesture that became a magnet to students and others who thronged around him as if in a divine scrum.
The school district asked him to stop using the 50-yard line as a stage. He could pray, but not use the gesture as spectacle (or bait to students who may feel coerced to join in, but that dimension of the prayer is not before the court). As a public school coach parading his act, he was turning a private prayer, which is protected by the First Amendment, into an endorsement of religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment.
Kennedy refused, knowing what would come next. He was fired. Nothing like a zealot’s sense of opportunity. That’s what had drawn Kennedy to the 50-yard line, after all. So he sued, finding in the First Liberty Institute just the sort of templars looking to make the Supreme Court’s brawn-again crusaders its new Jerusalem.
The court heard the case at the end of April. No need for leaks or illusions. Oral arguments were prophesy. The court will decide for Kennedy by at least a 5-4 vote, very possibly 6-3–because on matters of Christian supremacy, Chief Justice John Roberts is just one more thurible clickety-clinking with them.
But it will do so by fabricating a right not just out of emanations and penumbras like those the court used to expand the right to privacy, including Roe v. Wade, but out of thin air. We saw similar fabrications in Bush v. Gore in 2000 and D.C. v. Heller in 2008, the decision inventing an individual right to bear arms (a right I support statutorily, but let’s not pretend that it’s in the Constitution, at least not if you’re an originalist like the decision’s author.)
“I don’t know how we could write an opinion that would draw a line based on not making yourself the center of attention as the head coach of a game,” Justice Brett Kavanaugh said during arguments, showing his hand the way all the justices supporting Kennedy did. That’s how Kavanaugh is using the very reason not to find for Kennedy as a way to find for him.
There is an unseemly showiness in the act. The showiness is the act, because there wouldn’t be one without it. The prayer is entirely dependent on the stage of a 50-yard line at a public school event, the focal point of the entire stadium. Otherwise, why not humbly pray as he claims he intended, as a private act, as the apostle Matthew exhorts, unseen and behind a closed door, say, or wherever he may be on the sideline at the end of a game? So whether others join in or not is irrelevant. The potential coercion is irrelevant. His purposefully center-stage act compels attention and preaches loudly, smugly and discriminately.
It is, as Henry Sawyer III, arguing before the Supreme Court in the 1963 Pennsylvania case that invalidated school-sponsored Bible readings, told the justices, “the final arrogance to talk constantly about our religious tradition in this country and acquaint it with this Bible. Sure, religious tradition. Whose religious tradition? It isn’t any part of the religious tradition of a substantial number of Americans. … And it is just to me a little bit easy and I say arrogant to keep talking about our religious tradition. It suggests that the public schools at least to Pennsylvania are a kind of Protestant institutions to which others are cordially invited.”
That was 60 years ago, when the country was a lot less religiously diverse than it is today. Kennedy’s act erases that reality and regresses us to a time of presumptuous assumptions. It assumes, as a Muslim, a Jew, a Shinto, a pagan or an atheist never could–which is all you need to know about the reason for and the genius of the Establishment clause–that the act is perfectly accepted. It may well be in Kennedy’s little world. It is not in law. It hasn’t been in practice. It should never be so, if we are to remain the secular society where no sect can claim supremacy.
The successful secular society, I should say: in every measure, from belief in God (even in angels) to participation in religious services to praying, Americans rank among the most pious in the western world even as Christianity has declined by 12 in the past decade. But that’s the rub. It has done so not because there’s fewer believers (that remains at 90 percent), but because the country has become more religiously mixed, and fewer people are choosing to affiliate themselves with an organized sect.
Narratives as risible as those of Ark Encounter and other evangelical versions of manichean America aside, Christianity is not under assault in this country. It’s not in danger even as its numbers are declining relative to other faitsh. To the contrary. It assaults the senses as no other religion does everywhere one goes, from workplaces to public places to billboards to every other social media page to the presumptuous preaching of strangers to public meetings, where local officials love to gush their sanctimony between every other act of contempt for those unlike their holiness.
That’s the context of Joseph Kennedy’s choreographed prayer. It is not about religious freedom. It is not about God. It is not even about praying, none of it needing the 50-yard line of a public school’s turf to express itself sincerely. But it’s not about sincerity, either. It’s about imposing one version of Christianity–bragging, ostentatious, in your face and down your throat–in an increasingly pluralist society in one of the last places where that kind of favoritism has no place. It is intolerance by exclusivity.
Not to worry though, it soon will be law, and something more consequential. It will be the fulfillment of a view of American government by Antonin Scalia, the court’s late prophet. “The Lord repaid — did justice — through His minister, the state,” Scalia told the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2002, before explicitly rejecting secular democracy: “The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible.”
Joseph Kennedy’s prayer is about to give Christian arrogance its latest victory at the expense of a society becoming more diverse but less civil, less tolerant and more theocratic by the day.
Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece aired on WNZF. Disclosure: In the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case before the Supreme Court, lawyers for Americans United for Separation of Church and State are representing the Bremerton school district. Merrill Shapiro, who chairs the FlaglerLive Board of Directors, also chairs the Atlantic Coast Chapter of Americans United. He was not involved in the preparation of this column.