Faith Commons

by Rev. Dr. George Mason

Below you will find two columns, both published by the Dallas Morning News on May 29, 2022. William Haun authored the first and I wrote the second.

The set up for these is fairly straightforward: the Supreme Court considered the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton, and decided in favor of Kennedy.

It is a First Amendment issue about the free exercise of a person’s religion as a government employee in a public setting that is a secular not religious gathering. The school administration understood its Constitutional responsibility to protect against violating the Establishment Clause by permitting such a religious activity on school property, thus giving the appearance of endorsing religion. The coach refused to comply with school administrators’ attempts to find an accommodation for him to pray elsewhere. His contract was not renewed as a result. He was not technically fired, as it is alleged.

In the past few decades Evangelical Christians have claimed that the country they believe was founded on Christian principles has become increasingly hostile toward the public expression of Christian faith.

The lawyer who wrote the opposing piece (below) works for a group that defends an expansive view of religious liberty for all faiths, however groups like these have arisen largely as a response to the loss of Christian cultural hegemony. While they might claim to defend all religions, the effect of their advocacy is the tyranny of the majority—which has been and normally still is Christianity.

Ask yourself if this case would really be on the Supreme Court docket if the coach were a person of another faith demanding the right to pray in a way Christians would find spiritually objectionable at the 50-yard line after a game and invite other students to join in his prayers. This is hardly a hypothetical as we become an increasingly pluralistic country.

The framers of the First Amendment knew what they were doing. They had the example of every so-called Christian country before them and they chose not to use the government to privilege one faith over another, or even any faith over no faith.

Jesus warned his followers not to practice their piety in public so as to be seen and regarded by others for their devotion. He urged us to go into our closets and pray in such a way that only God would be our audience. Performative Christianity prefers to prove its worth by asserting its privileges over the objection or exclusion of others who do not share their view.

The way of Jesus in contrast is to consider our neighbor’s interest before our own. It may be our right to practice our faith in public places, but it isn’t right to ask government to endorse our behavior over the consideration of others. More than that, though, it isn’t right to identify our right to practice our piety in public in the name of the one who taught us not to.

A coach should be free to pray
Public religious expression is not coercive, and that’s what Supreme Court must clear up
by William J. Haun

The Supreme Court will soon decide if high school football coach Joe Kennedy should have lost his job for silently praying on the 50-yard line at the end of a game in 2015. The very fact that this case is in the high court exposes a deep misunderstanding of religious freedom and presents an opportunity to correct it.

The Bremerton School District of Washington acknowledges that Kennedy’s prayers were voluntary and that he did not require or encourage anyone, let alone students, to join him. The school also says it would have been fine with Kennedy leaving the field to pray in a secret, “private location” by himself. However, if he wanted to pray in public — silently, for about 15 seconds — then he could no longer have his job.

You might think that the First Amendment, which prevents the government from violating one’s free exercise of religion, might have something to say about this. But according to the school, the free exercise of religion says nothing about losing your job because of your religious exercise. This confused thinking is the result of a confused interpretation of the law. The Supreme Court now has the chance to clear up that confusion in favor of religious liberty and common sense.

As my firm, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, explained in our brief, America has long experienced vibrant, diverse religious exercise in public life. This tradition is protected by a well-functioning First Amendment, something the Supreme Court has emphasized in recent decisions on public religious expression, from legislative prayer to public memorials. As a plurality of justices put it in 2019, our traditions embrace “respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans.”

But as this case demonstrates, all is not well with the First Amendment. Despite this laudable tradition, fumes still emanate from some of the sourest decisions in Supreme Court case law, starting in the early 1970s with an aptly named case: Lemon. That case, and others that followed in its wake, tried to disembody our law from our tradition of vibrant religious exercise. These subsequent Supreme Court decisions forced religious expression out of public life on the theory that there’s something uniquely harmful about it.

That’s what the school district and lower courts tried to do here, claiming that there is hypothetical harm from Kennedy’s silent prayer. For example, the lower court held that Kennedy’s private prayers could be seen as “endorsed” by the district. But nobody can seriously believe that: Kennedy composed his own prayers, gave them silently to God, and lost his job over them. The school surely did not endorse his prayers.

With a frayed “endorsement” theory, the school tried another at the Supreme Court: That the coach’s prayers were “coercive” to students. Coerced religious exercise is prohibited by the Constitution. But voluntary prayers are, by definition, not coercive. The school agrees that Kennedy’s prayers were voluntary and that no student was either encouraged or forced to participate in them. Instead, the school claimed that Kennedy’s prayers might “alienat[e] team members.” But accepting that open-ended view of coercion would leave no room for the laudable tradition of vibrant, diverse religious expression that is a hallmark of the American experience. The court would be saying that the First Amendment requires schools to engage in intentional religious discrimination, based on nothing but speculation that someone might feel uncomfortable.

Ultimately, the issue in Kennedy’s case is not the abstract question of whether the Supreme Court should prefer the coach’s silent prayers to the school’s speculative fears. Rather, the question is whether the First Amendment allows Kennedy to lose his job over his religion. Nothing in America’s long-standing religious pluralism requires that result, and it’s time for the Supreme Court to give Americans a clear reminder.

William J. Haun is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His firm filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District. He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.

Religion flourishes best without help from government
People of all faiths should be comfortable at state-funded events
by George A. Mason

The Supreme Court of the United States will soon decide the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton. At issue is whether Joe Kennedy, a high school football coach in Washington state, was exercising his First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise of religion in leading his players in postgame prayer at the 50-yard line of the school’s football field, or instead was violating his employer’s reasonable policies to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The high court has been increasingly expanding the rights of individual citizens to express their religious beliefs and practices in public settings over the rights of others to be free from participating in religious ceremonies against their will.

The case has struck a chord with me as both a Baptist pastor and a former college football player. I believe that religious freedom in our public schools is best protected by ensuring that school officials do not lead religious exercises. This is best for our churches and our democracy. Three specific episodes in my past illustrate why this case matters.

As a 10-year-old evangelical Christian playing Pop Warner football in the Catholic-dominated borough of Staten Island in New York City in the mid-1960s, I was at a loss when our team coaches called for us to put our hands together, bow our heads and recite the Hail Mary prayer together. This was not part of my Christian devotion, and I felt excluded in a setting that should not have been religious in the first place.

Reflecting on this today, I know that if I were a coach, I would not impose my own faith on others in the same way, even if I were in the majority position. Loving my neighbor means not forcing my neighbor to defer to my religious rights. The religious group that is in the majority in any given area should not dictate how everyone prays. At the same time, culture is sometimes challenging to minority religions, and learning to live faithfully in the face of a dominant religion can strengthen one’s own faith. That Hail Mary prayer did not violate the First Amendment as it was not a government activity, but it helped me decide what I think is right.

As a quarterback for the University of Miami football team in the mid-1970s, I was an active member of our Fellowship of Christian Athletes huddle. Christians on the team would routinely pray together, and we invited other players and football staff to do so with us. Many did, some did not. No one was forced to participate. This was legally protected free exercise of religion at a private university. As college students we understood this as our right to voluntarily pray this way or not.

As a pastor, I was invited in the mid-1990s to speak to the Lake Highlands High School football team and to offer prayer at a team meeting before a game. The coaches made sure to hold the conclave at the church across the street from the school to avoid the appearance of school sponsorship. The team marched together in silence from the locker room to the church and filed into the pews. I did my part with an unsettled sense that this didn’t feel voluntary. I could not have imagined students who were not Christians feeling the freedom to break team spirit and opt out, even if there may have been titular permission granted. I declined a subsequent invitation to reprise that role, and I also refused the invitation to offer a prayer over the loudspeaker system at the stadium before a game. Whether the religious prayer meeting was a right is legally debatable, but it didn’t seem right.

Religion has a binding effect on groups that is all too easily manipulated. Within voluntary faith communities, this binding factor has a salient purpose. However, when religion is inserted into the public sphere without regard to the consent of those gathered, it can alienate some who have the right to participate in non-religious events without discrimination. These are everyday challenges we must negotiate with care and grace.

But when a public school official insists on his right to pray by gathering student athletes at the 50-yard line after a football game, even rejecting school administrators’ attempts to accommodate him in another location or at another time, the answer is clear to me. The setting demands that the coach’s claim to free exercise cannot override the school’s valid Establishment Clause concerns. Peer pressure to join a coach in prayer robs students of genuine freedom to abide by their own conscience in matters of religion.

Government is not hostile to religion when restricting such practices; it is honoring the religious liberty of students by doing so. Religion flourishes best without the aid of government. When civic officials protect the public sphere from attempts by government-paid employees to have their free expression imposed on others unwillingly, they do a service to the American ideal of religious liberty.

The happy end of our strivings should be the meeting of our rights with what is right. In the matter of Kennedy vs. Bremerton, school authorities were right to defend the rights of those who believe religious aims should not be advanced by a government employee, regardless of his sincerely held religious beliefs.

George A. Mason is the senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas and president of Faith Commons. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.