10.27.15

Senator Lankford, Rep. Forbes Lead Congressional Challenge to Washington School District in Support of Praying Football Coach

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) and Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA), co-chairmen of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, today led a Member of Congress letter to Bremerton, Washington School District officials to defend the First Amendment right of Bremerton High School football coach Joseph Kennedy to pray after games.
 
Since 2008, Assistant Coach Kennedy has practiced a tradition of praying at the fifty yard line after the conclusion of games. At times, students have chosen to pray with him. After seven years, however, the Bremerton School District ordered Coach Kennedy to stop earlier this month.
 
Following the football team’s homecoming game on October 16, Coach Kennedy knelt by himself to pray after the game. He was voluntarily joined by a crowd of others, including coaches and members of the opposing team. On October 23, the district told him if he repeated his tradition of praying, his actions would be “grounds for discipline, up to and including discharge from district employment.” Lankford and the Members of Congress argue that the coach’s non-coercive tradition of personally praying after the conclusion of games is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, as the school district has claimed.  
 
The Congressional Prayer Caucus works to protect the fundamental human right of religious freedom and guards the right of individuals to pray and practice their faith freely. Forty-six Members of Congress joined Senator Lankford in this letter.
 
 
A PDF of the letter is available here, and the full text is below:
 
Aaron Leavell,                                                                   
Superinetendent, Bremerton School District                                  
134 Marion Avenue N., Bremerton, WA 98312                                                                    
 
John Polm,
Principal, Bremerton High School
1500 13th St, Bremerton, WA 98337
 
Dear Superintendent Leavell and Principal Polm,
 
We write to express our concern over reports that the Bremerton School District views Coach Joseph Kennedy’s tradition of quietly praying at the fifty yard line after the conclusion of school football games as unlawful under the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.
 
Among the most basic rights that Americans enjoy are the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the freedom of association.  The Establishment Clause exists to ensure that the government cannot affirmatively impose or elevate one religion over another.  However, it does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that government officials proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square.  Rather, the Establishment Clause ensures both that the government does not show preference to a certain religion, and that the government does not take away an individual’s ability to exercise religion.
 
The Supreme Court recently stated, “It is an elemental First Amendment principle that government may not coerce its citizens to support or participate in any religion or its exercise.”  Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014). The Court went on to state that “an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary views . . . .”  Id.
 
These guiding principles from the Court were written in the context of a challenge to a small town’s practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer. The challengers did not like that most of the prayers offered were Christian in nature, even though participation was voluntary and anyone was welcome to offer a prayer.  However, the Court rejected the feeble argument that a reasonable observer would believe that the government was favoring Christianity over other religions.  The content of what was volunteered was irrelevant, so long as all were welcome.
 
These crucial principles are no less applicable here.  The Supreme Court has made clear that the voluntary observance of a brief prayer at the beginning of a legislative session—a tradition that is also embraced by both the United States Senate and House of Representatives—does not in and of itself present an Establishment Clause problem.  Likewise, the mere act of a single individual kneeling alone after the conclusion of a game to quietly pray coerces no one, even when that individual is a school employee.  That others may choose to join him of their own free will is irrelevant, and an exercise of their own constitutional freedoms.
 
The District acknowledged in its letter to Coach Kennedy’s legal counsel that he “is free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, even while on duty, so long as doing so does not interfere with performance of his job duties, and does not constitute District endorsement of religion.”  We would urge you to also consider the fact that Coach Kennedy’s personal actions are not only non-coercive, but also admirable and respectable as they represent his commitment to the welfare of the young men on his team.
 
The Establishment Clause does not require quarantining private, non-coercive religious expression to private quarters or off-duty hours.  Thank you for your service to the students and families of Bremerton.

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