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Prayer on the 50-yard line
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Dennis Wyatt

Prayer is back before the United States Supreme Court.

Or more precisely, school prayer.

This time it is in regards to the actions of Joe Kennedy. He’s a former high school junior varsity football coach in the state of Washington.

His legal sin, pardon the expression, is after every game he went to the 50-yard line and knelt in prayer in front of students, parents, the general public and whatever god he believes in.

The Bremerton School District has what one might call a “balancing act” policy when it comes to the thorny issue of prayer in a public school setting.

Students in Bremerton educational settings may “engage in private, non-disruptive prayer not in conflict with learning activity.” At the same time the policy indicated school staff “shall neither encourage nor discourage a student from engaging in a non-disruptive oral or silent prayer or any form of devotional activity.”

By all accounts, Kennedy never discouraged or encouraged students to join him.

That said, some did. One parent said their son — who is an atheist — felt compelled to join the coach at the 50-yard line.                      

There was also no evidence Kennedy favored those players that did join him in prayer.

The district, worried about a lawsuit, made it clear to Kennedy he was free to engage in any religious activity including prayer as long as two conditions were met. He could not allow any student to join him. It also had to be done away from the public eye in a school building and not on the football field.

All of this so far is likely to illicit a slew of predictable responses.

*Religion has no place in school.

*The issue has already been settled.

*The constitution separates church and state.

*The United States was founded as a Christian nation.

None of the proceeding is an absolute in terms of individuals based on what appears in the constitution and by extension what subdivisions the government creates such as public schools.

The following is the First Amendment in its entirety; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Note the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the establishment clause — the 10 words that read “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The Supreme Court last century applied the establishment clause to all states through the 14th Amendment.

Instead of being confusing or not clear, the high court has repeatedly made it clear the establishment clause separates state from church but not religion from politics or public life. In otherwards, citizens are free to bring their religious convictions to the public square or arena.

The government, however, is banned from favoring one religious view over another. It is further prohibited from favoring religion per se over non-religion.

That is not a wishy-washy stance. It is designed as being all inclusive.

The rights of one individual aren’t 100 percent absolute — nor can they be in order for a civilized society to exist. Think of the classic 1919 inference by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes underscoring absolute free speech doesn’t exist given an individual doesn’t have the right to falsely cry out fire in a crowded theater given what such words would trigger.

All liberties, by their very nature of involving 329.5 million America individuals as opposed to clones, require a balancing act. The same is true when it comes to religion in government or public settings.

It is why there are some public schools that have prayer rooms that are open to students of all faiths — Muslims, Jewish, Islamic, Christian, and so on.

It is why specific prayer tied to one religion or another has been banned from being a daily requirement in public school classrooms.

Both actions — as well as similar ones and all in between — reflect a well-established high court pattern of rulings anchored in the establishment clause.

First and foremost, the federal government cannot establish a national religion. Nor by extension can states establish a state religion.

At the same time government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion.

The question for the court to decide is whether the San Francisco-based 9th District Court of Appeals in upholding lower court rulings was correct in its view of the Bremerton School District policy and how it applies to Joe Kennedy.

Rest assured the dynamics of Joe Kennedy as a coach will be weighed as well as the fact one religion can’t be elevated above another nor can short change be given to those that have no religion.

Kennedy in his rule of a coach is an authoritarian figure hired by the government as much as he is a mentor.

As such does his visible public action of taking a knee at the 50-yard line clearly in view of his charges and other students run afoul with the ground rule of not favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion in a public school setting?

That is the decision before the Supreme Court.

It is not whether all traces of religion must be cleansed by those in a public school setting.

Nor is it whether all religious actions have carte blanche in a public school setting.

Justices must decide if the balancing act of upholding an individual’s rights aren’t overwhelmed by tipping the scales toward one religion or none at all and vice versa in scenarios presented to them.

Given the infinite number of moving parts — various religions, nonreligions as well as the endless practices of various faiths — there cannot be a decision that is an absolute blanket covering all questions of how government goes about not advancing or inhibiting religion.

It is why there will always be constitutional cases regarding conflicting views when it comes to religion or any of the other basic freedoms bestowed in the constitution for that matter whether it is freedom of speech, gun ownership or freedom of association.

It may seem like a hot mess but to be honest, sorting out those conflicts in a bid to accommodate everyone is why this nation has endured for 246 years.


This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Courier or 209 Multimedia.