In one Washington school, religious freedom hits the 50-yard line

31 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

In one Washington school, religious freedom hits the 50-yard line.

The Bremerton School District in Washington State put assistant varsity football coach Joe Kennedy on paid administrative leave this week after he failed to comply with directives to stop overt public displays of religion on the field while on duty. About a dozen members of the Satanic Temple of Seattle, most dressed in hooded black robes and some masked, left Bremerton High School shortly after their arrival at a varsity-football game Thursday night. The showdown raises a key question: When does a public school district’s responsibility to follow the First Amendment’s establishment clause – barring the government from endorsing or showing preference for religions – trump a staff member’s rights under the free exercise clause, meant to prohibit government interference with religious practice.

Many Christians feel as if their ability to express their religion publicly is getting squeezed, while religious minorities and nonreligious Americans protest the coercive potential of such public displays. “The Supreme Court’s pronouncements and precedents regarding prayer in public areas, prayer by public employees, and prayer in public schools are, to put it mildly, unclear,” says Rick Garnett, a professor at Notre Dame Law School in South Bend, Ind., in an e-mail to the Monitor. “The rules are hazy and, as a result, it is hard for lawyers and school officials to predict with certainty what courts will do in any particular case.” “During the contract day, the First Amendment limits [the coach’s] expression of his faith with students” in order to maintain the school district’s neutrality toward religion, says Charles Haynes, director of the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center in Washington. As expected, Kennedy attended Thursday’s game, hugging players over a fence, and after the game, kneeling down and praying with a group of people in front of the bleachers.

For years, Coach Kennedy had led prayers before games in the locker room and after games at the 50-yard line, but only recently did it come to the attention of a district administrator, a statement from the school district notes. He also said he’s willing to take this “as far as it goes and by doing so says he’s teaching his players “if you believe in something you stand up.” The senior class president was among some students and teachers who pressed for the district to clarify its policy on religion. Kennedy initially complied with the district’s directive until Liberty Institute, a religious-freedom organization based in Texas, encouraged him to resume the prayers.

The district said it was bound by “lawful and constitutionally-required directives” about public religious displays and outlined several Supreme Court rulings backing the district’s actions. On his Facebook page, where supporters were posting messages, Kennedy urged people to “forget me and come support these incredible young men” playing Thursday. The opinion read in part: “we hold that Borden’s silent acts violate the Establishment Clause because, when viewing the acts in light of Borden’s twenty-three years … during which he organized, participated in, and even led prayer activities with his team, a reasonable observer would conclude that Borden was endorsing religion when he engaged in these acts.” There is a gray area around when a staff member should be considered on duty, and therefore representing the public school.

The group was invited by a number of students, including Bremerton High senior- class President Abe Bartlett, who said he did so in an effort to force the school to clarify and act upon its policies. When students gather around a flagpole before school starts, for instance, should a teacher be able to join them? “There’s no bright line on that issue,” Haynes says. Berry said the institute, which says its mission is to defend and preserve religious liberty in America, is “prepared to take the necessary legal actions to defend coach Kennedy’s religious freedom.” Another Liberty lawyer said placing Kennedy on leave was a hostile-employment action and that the group would file a charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. And there are plenty of people who think we should have prayer at every government meeting,” he says. “We would do a lot better if both sides would agree to protect their own liberties and also respect the liberties of the other side, but we’re not there.”

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