‘It’s not a religious service’: Are prayers after football games harmless?

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy takes a knee in front of the U.S. Supreme Court after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the court on April 25, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The headlines blared and the news was treated as a thunderbolt, something cataclysmic.

A ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court backed a Washington state high school football coach who had been fired for participating in a prayer with his team on the field at a public school. The Supreme Court’s conservative wing ruled the coach was simply exercising his First Amendment rights to free speech.

Coaches, especially in the South, wondered what the furor was all about. They have been leading their teams in prayer, or participating in player-led prayer, “for centuries” said one coach, and the ruling had little impact.

“It legitimizes a practice that has been going on for years,” said Mike Duffie, the basketball coach at Pickens County High School. “A prayer before a game is a community standard. The group in Wisconsin (Freedom from Religion Foundation) would get an injunction against a coach, but by and large it didn’t affect anything.”

“When you go back to the first football game ever played in high school in Georgia, and just because of the society that we were in, most coaches wanted to lead and offer strength, and offered a prayer of safety,” said Allen Fort, the superintendent of Taliaferro County schools and long-time teacher, coach and administrator.

“It became a rite of passage for that coach to say ‘Lord protect our players’. It was a custom, not a religious exercise so to speak. It was done on the sideline or the huddle. Heck, I did it when I coached. You just said to the boys ‘Let’s gather in’. You didn’t say ‘get your butt in this huddle and bow your head’.”

But are these prayers so innocent and harmless? To many, the high court’s ruling was indeed a thunderbolt and the banner headlines justified, in a different way.

“I’ll give it to some people that they may feel their intentions are innocent, but they don’t get to define what the impact is for those of us who aren’t Christian,” said Joshua Lesser, the Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Bet Haverim of Atlanta, a Jewish house of worship. “And the fact that they’re not sensitive, or willing to listen to what that impact is means that they actually are turning away from hearing the fullness of their students.

“It’s like a pedophile saying, ‘oh, this was meant to be a good touch.’ I think it’s as corrupt as that at times. The perpetrator doesn’t get to define what the experience is like for those on the other side.”

And what of future coaches among the gatherings of these athletes in Christian prayer?

“These kids are learning from their coaches,” Lesser said. “These kids may go on to a different atmosphere and think that it’s okay (to offer only Christian prayer) because their coaches never once brought up the idea of diversity.” Read more