Sonoma County prep football coaches watching for impact of Supreme Court’s prayer decision
Could public displays of religion become more common at high school sporting events around Sonoma County?
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday in favor of a public high school football coach who was fired for leading postgame prayers with his players opened the door to the possibility.
In a 6-3 vote, the court’s conservative majority ruled that Bremerton School District in Washington state violated the First Amendment rights of former Bremerton High School assistant coach Joseph Kennedy, who was placed on administrative leave for violating district policy prohibiting staff from encouraging students to engage in prayer.
The details of the case are complicated, but in essence the court ruled that Kennedy was acting as a private citizen and not as a public employee when he prayed at the 50-yard line after games, and therefore his actions were protected by the First Amendment.
Those opposed to the ruling argue it sets a new precedent for the place of religion in public schools. Supporters of Kennedy view the decision as a win for religious freedom across the board, while critics believe it erodes, if not completely dissolves, the separation of church and state in the U.S.
Local football coaches had mixed reactions to the decision. Many had grown up with religion front and center in their early football careers, even at public schools.
Santa Rosa head coach Roy Keegan said he first learned the Lord’s Prayer through team prayers when he played football at Westmoor High School in Daly City. Petaluma head coach Rick Krist remembers pregame prayers during his playing days at Petaluma. Cardinal Newman head coach Richard Sanchez used to pray with his teams as a public high school coach in Southern California.
“I just think it was just the way the world was back then,” Krist said. “You just kind of went with it.”
Coaches also said that while the prayers they experienced included both coaches and students, they were usually led by students, something they still witness today.
“As for now, we don’t have any organized prayer events, but I know several kids who pray before the game, on the field, before kickoff,” Keegan said.
Freedom of religion is protected by the First Amendment, but one of the issues in the Kennedy case was the public nature of the coach’s prayers and whether his actions pressured his players into joining him.
The school district, in its reasoning for placing Kennedy on leave in 2015, said that leading prayers with students could expose the district to legal action. Kennedy has repeatedly argued that his actions were his alone and that his players voluntarily joined him.
But the school district, and dissenting members of the court, painted a different picture of events.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote for the three liberal justices in dissent, said that players might have felt coerced into joining Kennedy’s prayers since students look up to teachers and coaches as role models and “seek their approval.” Having a better relationship with a coach, like Kennedy, could help secure more playing time or a better letter of recommendation for colleges, the dissent suggested.
Jerod Brown, an assistant football coach at Analy, expressed a similar sentiment.
“There’s a natural relationship between coach and player where you set an example that some students might feel pressured to follow if it’s not what they believe in or what their family practices,” Brown said. “That’s what concerns me a little bit.”
Krist also agreed, saying that while he is OK with coaches praying, he had an issue with how Kennedy went about it so publicly.
“You don’t have to make it an exhibition in any way,” Krist said. “As much as praying feels like including, it can also feel like excluding.”
Private schools don’t fall under the same laws that public schools do regarding displays of faith. Cardinal Newman holds team prayers before and after every game.
Sanchez said that over his career he’s had players who haven’t wanted to participate in team prayers, and that in those situations he makes it clear that is OK.
“Even our kids today, if they don’t feel comfortable praying with us, then you don’t have to,” he said. “You’re not held to that standard of praying, if that’s your belief not to.”
Most coaches interviewed don’t believe the Supreme Court ruling will change much in Sonoma County. But if it does, and coaches leading teams in prayer becomes more common, Brown said he hopes they create an environment where all religions feel welcome.
“I’m hopeful that if it is expanding — and I understand that faith and religion drives a lot of peoples’ lives — I’m hoping that everyone feels equally comfortable to practice and is allowed to in the same manner,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Gus Morris at 707-304-9372 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JustGusPD.