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Opinion Why you shouldn’t defend a high school coach praying on his football field

Oct. 16, 2015, Bremerton High assistant football coach Joe Kennedy wipes his eyes as he talks to the media after a football game in Bremerton, Wash. (Lindsey Wasson /The Seattle Times via AP, File)

Dear U.S. Sen. James Lankford and U.S. Rep. J. Randy Forbes,

As co-chairs of the Congressional Prayer Caucus and lawmakers, you sent a mixed message this week to Americans about religion’s place in public schools. Miffed that Bremerton, Wash., school officials told a coach to stop his public display of prayer on the football field, you wrote the superintendent and principal a letter saying they were wrong.

[Letter from 47 lawmakers defending Washington coach]

You and 45 other lawmakers who signed the letter contend there’s nothing wrong with a school employee dropping to his knee right after the game ends and praying at the 50-yard line in full view of everyone. That everyone includes public school students.

You’re laying down the gauntlet in a battle that should have ended a half century ago when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against teacher-led prayer. So is Coach Joe Kennedy, who brazenly disobeyed his school system’s previous orders to stop his practice of praying publicly on the field. Kennedy was put on paid leave Wednesday by his school district because of his refusal to “comply with the district’s lawful and constitutionally-required directives that he refrain from engaging in overt, public religious displays on the football field while on duty as a coach,” according to a school district statement.

[More about the coach being put on leave]

Sen. Lankford, you posted on your Facebook page Thursday how upset you were over Kennedy’s punishment. “This is unbelievable. Bremerton School District should be ashamed. This is not who we are as a nation,” you wrote.

I think you and the lawmakers who signed that letter are the ones who should be ashamed. You are promoting the idea that we should live in an America where public school officials can publicly pray in front of students. You’re promoting an America where it’s okay to ignore the protections set up not just for religious minorities but for the growing number of “nones,” the roughly 20 percent of Americans who say they are unaffiliated.

In your talk before the U.S. Senate this week Sen. Lankford, you said “Gratitude to God is certainly not a crime in America.” You added that it in fact is “encouraged every year in the National Day of Prayer proclamation given by every American president, including this one.” Two wrongs don’t make a right. Courts have not ruled against a national day of prayer, but they should. They have weighed in that when it comes to public schools, representatives of schools should not have public displays of prayer – which is government endorsement of religion.

“If I see a student praying, I want to stand by them, to hear their prayer, to be encouraged in prayer,” you said in your Senate speech.

That’s a lovely sentiment. Students can pray in school. They also can say a prayer at football games, but the coaches should not join them.

Bremerton school districts are taking the wise, legally sound path. You are warping court decisions to suit your desire to return to the America of the 1950’s and early 1960’s when teachers regularly led children in prayer and in the recitation of Bible verses. You are pitting us against each other, just like Texas Gov. Rick Perry did in 2012 when he backed Kountze, Texas cheerleaders’ in their fight against their school system to hold up run-through banners with Christian prayers on them. Kountze school officials at first prohibited the cheerleaders from using those banners, which included such sayings as “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.” A lower court overruled the school system’s decision, saying the activity was student-led. The case is on appeal, with opponents noting that cheerleaders represent the school and their display promotes a particular religion.

In researching schools’ efforts to teach about the world’s religions for my book, FaithEd, I visited a Kountze football game in the fall of 2013. Cheerleaders unraveled a banner that said, “And he said, ‘The things which are impossible with men are possible from God,’” from Luke 18:27. The cheerleaders, some sitting on one another’s shoulders, held the banner as the Kountze football team ran through and split the paper in two. The crowd cheered. A short while later, an announcer asked everyone to stand for a moment of silence. Everyone around me bowed their heads. I stood with my head up, watching as I had done throughout high school in rural Ohio when pastors came to my school and led us in prayer at Christmas and Easter assemblies and graduations. “Amen,” someone shouted to end the moment of silence, and people applauded.

A video on a Support Coach Kennedy Facebook page shows the coach kneeling in prayer at the much publicized homecoming game on Oct. 17. That was the game where the coach made it clear he would pray despite school district orders. He is joined by players and onlookers. At the end of the prayer, which can’t be heard on the video, someone says “Hallelujah.” Kennedy, CNN reported, cried as he spoke to reporters about the experience of so many joining him.

I understand the power of prayer. As a Jew, I have found solace in prayer privately or in community in my house of worship. There is no place, though, for public prayer led by coaches,  school officials or cheerleading squads. And a public school’s football field is certainly not the place for a mass baptism for a coach and his players, a ritual a Georgia church performed recently. Those displays show a “majority rules” kind of attitude rather than a respect for all Americans and a respect for the First Amendment’s call for government not to establish religion.

I doubt that Coach Kennedy would be getting so much support if he were not a Christian. A Seattle-based group, The Satanic Temple, obviously believes that, too, and announced this week that it would accept invitations to help lead a post-game Satanic invocation for students and interested teachers. The temple describes itself as practicing an internationally recognized non-theistic religion. “Its mission is to encourage benevolence and empathy among all people,” the group wrote in its news release. What a concept.

Sen. Lankford and Rep. Forbes, wouldn’t it be better if we stopped this us vs. them attitude?

This is an open letter to Lankford, R-Okla., and Forbes, R-Va., from Linda K. Wertheimer, a former education editor of The Boston Globe and author of Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance, which came out this year. She tweets at @lindakwert