On August 28, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that former football coach Joe Kennedy does not have the right to pray silently on the football field after a game.
A former Marine and assistant football coach in the public schools of Bremerton, Washington, Joe Kennedy made a practice of praying on the 50-yard line after games, as well as in the locker-room before and afterward. Students were welcome to join him if they wished. This went on for seven years, according to Kennedy, until an employee from another school district heard of it and brought it to the attention of Bremerton officials.
An investigation followed, and Kennedy was told that he could only pray after everyone had left and the field was empty. Initially he complied, but then resumed his practice of dropping on one knee in public and praying silently after the game. He was suspended until the end of the school year and his contract was not renewed. This happened in 2015.
The Court Rules Against the Coach
Kennedy believed his constitutional right to religious expression had been violated. He took legal steps and sued the school district in an attempt to regain his position.
The court ruled against Kennedy, stating that he “took advantage of his position to press his particular views upon impressionable and captive minds before him,” and concluding:
When Kennedy knelt and prayed on the fifty-yard line immediately after the games while in view of students and parents, he spoke as a public employee, not as a private citizen, and his speech therefore was constitutionally unprotected.
Kennedy’s situation has drawn support from a variety of sources, including former professional football players Steve Largent and Chad Hennings, as well as Ben Carson and President Donald Trump.
His legal team is considering their next step, which could even be an appeal to the Supreme Court. This story gives an opportunity to remind us of the Church teaching on the public prayer.
What the Church Says About Public Prayer
For the State to ban all religions from the public sphere is wrong. But to give equally to all, right of manifesting publicly, is also wrong. State toleration of all forms of religion without exception is in contradiction to natural law and to every rational system of polity (cf. Encyclical of Pius IX Quanta cura - 12/8/1864).
The State as such is under the same obligation to confess and venerate God as the individual, therefore, it is “a sin for the State not to have care for religion as a something beyond its scope, or as of no practical benefit; or out of many forms of religion to adopt that one which chimes in with the fancy; for we are bound absolutely to worship God in that way which He has shown to be His will” (Immortale Dei by Leo XIII - 11/1/1885).
The ideal situation, promoted by the Church, is that of the State acknowledging the only true religion, encouraging the Church’s work and prohibiting the public manifestation of other religions, arranging questions bordering both jurisdictions through concordats.
Without abandoning the ideal praised as Catholic State or Christendom –which is not an impossible chimera but has existed, reminded St. Pius X- the Church acknowledges difficult situations where civil peace requires to tolerate already co-existing religions.
The Church, indeed, deems it unlawful to place the various forms of divine worship on the same footing as the true religion, but does not, on that account, condemn those rulers who, for the sake of securing some great good or of hindering some great evil, allow patiently custom or usage to be a kind of sanction for each kind of religion having its place in the State” (Immortale Dei).
State toleration of all forms of religion could be justified as well because of disruptive atheism or deistic indifferentism. But in all these case, the State must set bounds to religious freedom at least at the point where the unrestricted exercise of this freedom would lead to the subversion of state security and public morality.