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LA Times op-ed slams coach fired for on-field prayers, claims 'separation of church and state'

An op-ed in The Los Angeles Times Wednesday slammed former high school football coach Joe Kennedy who was fired in 2015 for refusing to halt his practice of praying on the 50-yard-line at the conclusion of each game.

In the piece, headlined, ‘Jesus said to pray in a ‘closet,’ not on the 50-yard line,’ liberal university professor and Episcopal priest Randall Balmer lamented the idea that the court could side with Kennedy, who has undergone a years-long court battle against the Bremerton, Washington, school district over his firing and seemed to claim that prayer should only be done in private.

Joe Kennedy, who coached high school football in Bremerton, Washington, with his players on the field

Joe Kennedy, who coached high school football in Bremerton, Washington, with his players on the field
(First Liberty Institute)


“Public prayer in public schools should have been dispatched once and for all decades, even centuries, ago, initially by the 1st Amendment … and certainly by Supreme Court rulings in the early 1960s that struck down prescribed prayer and mandatory Bible reading in public education,” Balmer claimed.

He noted that following the rulings in the ’60s, President John F. Kennedy urged Americans to respect the decisions even if they didn’t agree with them, and to pray themselves.

“For Joseph Kennedy … ‘praying ourselves’ wasn’t good enough,” Balmer wrote, adding that the school district asked Coach Kennedy to stop the practice after some of his players felt that it was mandatory.

Kennedy refused to stop or to change the location and time in which he prayed, leading to his termination.

judiciary heard oral arguments on the case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, on Monday.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)


“Unfortunately, given the court’s composition and recent rulings … we have no assurance that the justices will defend the 1st Amendment’s establishment clause and retain the separation of church and state, which has ensured the vitality of religion throughout American history,” wrote Balmer, author of “Solemn Reverence: The Separation of Church and State in American Life.”

“Any time prayer is compulsory or coercive in a public context, it can violate the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment, which forbids the state from favoring one faith over another (or no faith at all). But it also violates the spirit of prayer itself,” he added. 

Balmer noted how Jesus reprimanded religious authorities in the New Testament because of the public prayers they did for the sake of being seen praying by others, seemingly suggesting Kennedy was conducting his prayers for the same reason.

He then said Jesus “rarely in the New Testament prayed publicly,” and that he instructed his followers to “enter thy closet, and … shut thy door” to pray.

“Pray in a closet, not at the 50-yard line,” he added.

Former Bremerton, Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy. (First Liberty Institute)

Former Bremerton, Washington high school football coach Joe Kennedy. (First Liberty Institute)
(First Liberty Institute)


Balmer wrote that for those of faith, “an even greater danger than coercion” was “trivialization,” and that “a failure to recognize the importance of the 1st Amendment has led to a devaluation and trivialization of religion.”

“The power of religion lies not with coercion but with faith itself. And religion has flourished in the United States as nowhere else precisely because it is uncoerced, precisely because of the 1st Amendment and the separation of church and state,” Balmer wrote.

“Joseph Kennedy, the football coach, has every right to pray. But Jesus suggested that he do so in private, not the middle of a football field as the game ends. The 1st Amendment concurs with that wisdom. For the sake of the integrity of the faith, let’s hope — pray — that the justices will do the same,” he added.

Other liberals have also fretted the idea Kennedy could win the case, including University of Miami law professor Caroline Mala Corbin, who sounded the alarm in an NBC op-ed earlier this week that the Supreme Court could be poised to continue allowing “Christians to violate anti-discrimination laws.”

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