Can a high school coach pray at the 50-yard line? 5 key takeaways from high court arguments

(Religion Unplugged) – The case of Joseph Kennedy, a Bremerton, Washington, high school football coach who wants to kneel and pray at the 50-yard line, made it to the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

Arguments took nearly two hours, double the time scheduled.

Here are five key takeaways:

1. The issue: “The case pits the rights of government workers to free speech and the free exercise of their faith against the Constitution’s prohibition of government endorsement of religion and Supreme Court precedents that forbid pressuring students to participate in religious activities,” the New York Times’ Adam Liptak explains.

2. The significance: It’s “one of its most significant cases on prayer in decades … in a clear test for how the court’s new conservative majority may rule on prayer in public schools,” Newsweek’s Julia Duin reports.

Duin adds:

The case focused on whether a high school coach could openly pray after the end of a football game. Arguments included examples from elsewhere in the sports world, with mentions of former Denver Broncos football player Tim Tebow, known for kneeling on the field in prayer, and Egyptian soccer player Mohamed Salah, who kneels in a thanksgiving prayer to Allah after he scores a goal.

Read Plug-in’s past coverage of Tebow’s controversial prayers.

3. The hypotheticals: “The U.S. Supreme Court justices spun more than a dozen hypothetical prayer scenarios during oral arguments,” Christianity Today’s Daniel Silliman notes.

The Associated Press’ Jessica Gresko highlights some of those scenarios:

A coach who crosses himself before a game. A teacher who reads the Bible aloud before the bell rings. A coach who hosts an after-school Christian youth group in his home.

Supreme Court justices discussed all those hypothetical scenarios.

See more on the hypotheticals from the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas, whose advance coverage on what’s at stake I recommended last week.

4. The coercion question: “Joseph A. Kennedy’s lawyer said the assistant coach was asking only for a private moment to take a knee and express gratitude to God on the gridiron after a game,” the Washington Post’s Robert Barnes points out. “But lawyer Paul D. Clement acknowledged that Kennedy’s actions at Bremerton High School near Seattle had at times gone far beyond that, including leading players and others in prayer.

5. The precedents: USA Today’s John Fritze outlines the history:

The court has looked favorably on religious freedom claims in recent disputes over the First Amendment’s establishment clause, which prohibits the government from becoming entangled with religion, and the amendment’s free exercise clause, which guarantees the right to practice religion free of government interference.

In 2014, the court upheld a centuries-old tradition of offering prayers to open government meetings, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian. In 2019, the court ruled that a Latin cross on government land outside Washington, D.C., did not have to be moved or altered in the name of church-state separation. This term, the Supreme Court is considering a case about a religious group that wants to raise a flag outside Boston’s City Hall just as some secular groups do.

Look for a ruling in Kennedy v. Bremerton this summer.