Another Bad Decision: The Supreme Court and School Prayer

Post-game ritual with Coach Joseph Kennedy, Bremerton High School, WA, October 16, 2015 (Attribution: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals)

A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichi Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the work of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer. 

— Ann and Barry Ulanov [i]

“I wasn’t going to stop my prayer because there was kids around me.”

— Joseph Kennedy, football coach

If January 6th is the coup that failed, the Supreme Court is the one that has succeeded. The extremist majority, abandoning both precedent and good sense, has gone rogue, wreaking havoc with a barrage of malignant decisions. While the recent decisions on abortion and climate change are the most broadly calamitous, I want to address the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, a poorly considered ideological gambit with unsettling implications for both politics and religion.

Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, a few miles by water from my island home in Washington State. Hired in 2008, he began to kneel in silent prayer at midfield after the game. He got the idea from a televised movie about a coach at a Christian school who prays and witnesses with his team as he leads them to the state championship. 

At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but over time he was joined by most of his players, as well as members of the visiting team. At some point he began to add religiously flavored “motivational” speeches to this postgame ritual and, it seems, his prayers were no longer entirely silent. It took seven years for the Bremerton School District to take notice, but when it did, it expressed concerns about upsetting the delicate balance between private religious expression and the religious neutrality mandated by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

In September, 2015, the District instructed Coach Kennedy to refrain from religious talks and prayers with his players, and to keep his personal religious activity “nondemonstrative” while on duty, “to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.” At first he agreed to the terms, but while driving home after a game, he felt he had “broken [his] commitment to God” by not praying on the field after the game. So he returned to the empty stadium to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief prayer. 

But that would not be enough for him. On October 14, two days before the Homecoming game,  he informed the District that he planned to resume his “private” postgame prayer practice, insisting that he would not invite or encourage anyone to join him. This was disingenuous, since he had been throwing gasoline on the fire through social media, complaining to the world that he was being persecuted for praying. And his choice of the well-attended Homecoming for his defiant display ensured maximum attention. 

Predictably, he was joined in “prayer” not only by players and news cameras, but also by spectators who jumped fences in a rush to midfield (knocking over some band members in their stampede). This “prayer” circus continued for another two weeks, joined by the sort of politicians who profit from religious resentment. 

By the end of October, Kennedy was out of a job. He likes to say he was fired for praying, but the record reflects a more complicated story. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would note in her carefully argued dissent, there were a number of reasons for Kennedy’s suspension:

“In Kennedy’s annual review, the head coach of the varsity team recommended Kennedy not be rehired because he ‘failed to follow district policy,’ ‘demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,’ ‘contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the school district,’ and ‘failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community’ members. The head coach himself also resigned after 11 years in that position, expressing fears that he or his staff would be shot from the crowd or otherwise attacked because of the turmoil created by Kennedy’s media appearances. Three of five other assistant coaches did not reapply.” [ii]

The head coach’s fear of being “shot from the crowd” might have raised eyebrows in 2016, but it would surprise no one today. The rise of white “Christian” nationalism in the United States has made home-grown terrorism a significant threat. And given the Trumpian swerve of so many white Evangelicals, a lot of that terrorism is tied to twisted religious rhetoric. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, along with its dismantling of Roe and other radical rulings, will only encourage the Guns-and-God crowd further. Inch by inch, we are slouching toward Gilead.[iii] Lord have mercy. 

In his opinion for the Supreme Court majority, Neil Gorsuch began with a lie: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” But a lower court judge, in the ruling subsequently overturned by SCOTUS, drew a more honest picture: 

“No case law requires that a high school teacher must be out of sight of students or jump into the nearest broom closet in order to engage in private prayer, but it cannot be denied that this football coach’s prayer at the fifty-yard line, immediately after a game, under stadium lights and in front of players and spectators, objectively sent a public message.” [iv]

Joseph Kennedy poaes with a football in front of the Supreme Court. (After a photo by Win McNamee)

Personal prayer, which Jesus called praying “in secret” (Matthew 6:6), has no human spectators, and any self-consciousness about one’s appearance to others is an interruption of prayerful attention. But liturgical prayer, performed with others in public, is meant to be seen. Worshippers are strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that they are bound together in ritually shared speech and practice. At the same time, public worship makes a visible statement to the world.

But liturgical prayer requires a common language and worldview. In a pluralistic society, such specific religious commonality is rarely possible. Worship is most authentically and effectively situated within each particular tradition. In the United States, therefore, the government should neither restrict the diversity of worship practices, nor endorse or favor one religious expression over any other. 

Given the importance of religion in American history and culture, and the large number of religious believers in public life, the separation of church and state lacks a firm and absolute boundary. There are Inaugural prayers, Congressional chaplains, funerals for public figures at the “National Cathedral,” and the frequent invocation of divinity by political speakers. Some of that is boilerplate civil religion, but no one can doubt the formative effect of religious belief and practice on our political life, for better or worse. For the record, all six justices who voted against abortion and for school prayer are conservative Catholics, although Gorsuch has been attending an Episcopal church. Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, with the remaining justices comprised of one Jew and one Protestant. 

For a long time, public schools have had relative clarity about the Establishment Clause. Justice Sotomayor, in her Kennedy dissent, cited the precedents:

‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’ Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children . . . on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.’ Accordingly, the Establishment Clause “proscribes public schools from ‘conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred’ or otherwise endorsing religious beliefs.

I myself went to an Episcopal elementary school where every day began with worship. From 7th to 12th grade I attended an Episcopal boys school. We had religion courses, and two chapel eucharists each week. The popular chaplain, Father Gill, conducted a gorgeous Sarum rite, and our hymns were propelled by a youthful desire to make loud sounds in a resonant space. When I returned for my 40th class reunion, I found a school mostly secularized by its merger with a non-religious girls school. When we visited the chapel in a campus tour, I asked our student guide what remained of the school liturgies. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve never been in here before.”

That made me sad, since my religious schools had been so formative and joyous for my own faith. But I know that public schools are neither appropriate nor feasible venues for common prayer. Inclusivity and diversity are a part of their strength, and in matters of religion they must remain neutral ground. That is why the SCOTUS ruling in Kennedy is so unsettling. It opens the door to some very undesirable outcomes. 

The overview provided at the top of the ruling states, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” I have no idea what is meant by “comparable secular speech.” Does it mean anything not involving religious language, or any human rituals—like football games, for example—which do not invoke the divine? The misleading fiction of competition here feels like an absurd whine: They get to be secular, but we don’t get to be religious! 

The Bremerton School District was not trying “to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance.” I can’t judge the sincerity or quality of Coach Kennedy’s initial silent prayers, but once he became the presider at a public ritual as a school employee in a school setting, eager to display himself as a visible and symbolic champion of white Evangelical grievance, it was no longer a private act. Gorsuch argued that non-Evangelical, non-Christian, or non-religious students would be mature enough to feel no pressure to join the prayer circle, whether to please their coach (and get more playing time), or to blend in with their peers. Nope, no pressure at all to conform! Apparently, Gorsuch never went to high school. 

There are many nuances to explore in this case and the Establishment Clause in general. If you want to dive deep, you can read the lower court decision here, and the Supreme Court decision here. But one question in particular interests me. When people say they want prayer back in the schools, what are they imagining? As a liturgist committed to eloquence, poetry and theological depth in verbal prayer, as well as the beauty of holiness in public rituals, I’m not sure I would want to trust an ad-libbing football coach with bad grammar to set the standard for spiritual expression in my community. I suppose that’s my elitism showing. 

But seriously, where do you draw the line? If we sanctioned prayers in schools, who would write them and who would critique them? Can you imagine the state prayers if white Christian nationalists ever seize power? In any case, who would decide what could or could not be included in officially approved forms of prayer? Would there be a government liturgical commission? How would we arrive at the government definitions of such broad and inexact terms as “religion” and “prayer”? And should SCOTUS manage to reestablish prayer in public schools, would any and all forms of religious expression then be acceptable, or only the ones favored by conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals? 

The best prayers are rooted in specific traditions. Generic prayers risk a bland vagueness. But there are occasions—mostly tragic—when some ritual spiritual expression as a nation is regarded by most as a good and necessary thing. President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, is a powerful example. 

Might we draw inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision of “unlocking at all risks [our] human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through [us].” [v] (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Or is it possible to emulate the broad sweep of Martin Luther King’s elegantly inclusive phrasing?

“Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [vi]

But what about the “religious speech,” say, of Allen Ginsberg, who after taking acid in the Sixties burst naked out of Timothy O’Leary’s bedroom to declare: “I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.” [vii]  How would that go over on the 50-yard line of your local high school?

The Supreme Court has lifted the lid on this rabbit hole—and many others. May we find a way to curtail the ambitions of that power-mad cabal before they drag us all into the dark. 

Luckily for us, I’m not a government official, nor are you, dear reader, under any coercion whatsoever. After so much talk about prayer as a political question, let us simply consider the nature of prayer in the wise and powerful words of Native American poet Joy Harjo:[viii]

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always a sound but other 
Circles of motion
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care 
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we 
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning 
Inside us. 
We pray that it will be done
In beauty. 
In beauty.


[i] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 10.

[ii] Citations from the Supreme Court opinions and dissents can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21-418_i425.pdf

[iii] Gilead was the new name given to the former United States after a violent takeover by a patriarchal Christian theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s harrowing novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course the original reference for my phrase is from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where an apocalyptic beast, a hideous antichrist, is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

[iv] Judge Morgan Christen, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the court’s full text: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/03/18/20-35222.pdf

[v] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: Univ of Delaware Press, 2010), 116.

[vi] Ibid., 116.

[vii] Ibid., 109.

[viii] Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem” from In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

7 thoughts on “Another Bad Decision: The Supreme Court and School Prayer

  1. Jim and I were classmates. An Episcopal boys school known as the Saracens. Go figure. A great education and sweet memories. But that was another time ,another America, and surely another California. God bless America and have a blessed Independence Day!

  2. Very thoughtful, as usual, and very helpful in thinking through these issues. I love your enumeration of various of the infinite ways to pray (think of Mary Oliver: i don’t know how to pray/but i know how to pay attention…); and the distinctions between personal and liturgical prayers “performed” in church…makes me wonder when it becomes “perfomative” in the negative sense. Beautiful poem by Joy Harjo to end with. Thank you, Jim.

    • Thank you, Gillian. It was quite an experience poring through the opinions. I’m glad I’m not a lawyer. I love the Mary Oliver line, reminiscent of Simone Weil’s “absolute unmixed attention”—which is hard to maintain in a media circus. As for performing, presiders, readers, singers, etc. all must struggle with the negative sense of that word, but ritual theory treats “performing” as a neutral description of something that is shown and done, not just said.

  3. Thank you, Jim, for as always saying the difficult with such relevance and clarity.
    I fear for the world we now live in, more than ever. It’s good to know that there are others out there not deluded by this new fanaticist barrage.
    Please keep shedding light in our growing darkness.
    May God spare us long enough that we may have the privilege of participating in the continuance of His work here on earth.

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