Why is it so hard for those who want to defend the rights of Christians to infringe on others to understand that when someone acts as an employee or representative of a public organization, he or she absolutely cannot wear their religion on the sleeve?
The latest attempt to assert a new religious right based not on the freedom to practice but the freedom to make a public display involves an assistant high school football coach for a public school district who was suspended from his job for praying at a game. He had done it before and been warned of the consequences of continuing to promote one religion while in the employ of a public school district.
But don’t feel sorry that Joe Kennedy has lost his job. He has a new one—as the latest poster boy for the religious right. He defiantly has told the news media that he is prepared to take his fight to manifest his Christianity while on the clock all the way to the Supreme Court. With a little help from his friends, who include the lawyers of the Liberty Institute, a pro bono law firm that specializes in helping Christian individuals and groups (and occasionally Orthodox Jews) use the First Amendment to assert their rights to encroach on secular institutions. I couldn’t find anything online yet, but it’s only a matter of time before we learn that donations for Kennedy are pouring in from a crowdsourcing website or that the religious right is taking care of Kennedy’s economic needs in some other way.
An enormous photograph of Kennedy already dominates the Liberty Institute home page less than two days after the suspension. Either they move quickly or they had already coordinated Kennedy’s defiance of the school district’s direct order not to continue praying on the sidelines. I’m thinking the latter.
Call me cynical, but I’m wondering whether Kennedy has already negotiated his remuneration for serving as the test case. It would be no different from the hoard of PhDs taking money from right-wing think tanks to write claptrap against the minimum wage and public unions.
The self-proclaimed mission of the Liberty Institute is “to defend and restore religious liberty across America—in our schools, for our churches, inside the military, and throughout the public arena.” In the past, the Liberty Institute has defended the right of a student to distribute candy canes with a religious story attached at his school’s holiday party; filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veteran Affairs alleging it had censored prayers and the use of the words “God and Jesus”; and established the “Don't Tear Me Down” campaign to fight challenges against veterans memorials with Christian symbolism.
The Liberty Institute and other Kennedy defenders assert that his public prayer is protected by the First Amendment, forgetting that the First Amendment also protects against the establishment of one religion over the others. As a football coach, Kennedy is paid to be a figure of authority. His prayers can make the students who aren’t the same religion feel very uncomfortable, very left out. Believe me, I know. I was on the football team of one of the five high schools I attended. (I’d like to say I “played football,” but I never entered any game for even one play!) We always had a prayer session conducted by a member of the local clergy before every game, always ecumenical, with no prayer specific to one religion read nor any particular rite mentioned. We had about 80 kids on the team, all of whom were Christians of various sorts, except for three Jews, myself and two boys who were all-city. One time, the religious figure talked about Christ in the pre-game prayer. All three of us felt humiliated, bullied and unwanted. We told the coach how angry we were, and our parents probably did as well. The coach apologized immediately and assured us that it would never happen again. And it didn’t, at least as long as I went to that high school.
That was 1966 in Miami, Florida, long before evangelical groups decided that it wasn’t enough to have the right to practice one’s own religion in peace, but that they had to make sure that America was branded as a Christian nation that abided by Christian laws.
Even then I questioned the need to have any sort of prayer before football games, ecumenical or not. I understand that football and religion tend to go hand-in-hand in many places. It makes sense, because the same kind of belief in a higher order that helps if one is trying to follow the many rites and beliefs of an organized religion also can serve as the personal justification for putting oneself through painful practices and risking life-threatening injuries on every play. For similar reasons, military organizations often promote religiosity as a stabilizing and motivating element. No one stops to think that perhaps one or more deities are rooting for the opponent, be it an athletic competition or a war.
Religion is an integral part of the football mentality. The ideal, of course, would be if everyone on the team were fighting for the same religion, so that the individual team members would feel even more bonded to each other and more ready to make sacrifices for victory. Unfortunately, professional teams, those affiliated with public schools and organizations and the armed forces are unable to enjoy the benefits of religious unity. There are just too many different religions around. Plus we have all those atheists.