A featured article in Sports Illustrated published on Monday characterizes a possible U.S. Supreme Court victory for a former high school football coach’s right to public prayer in Bremerton, Washington, as a “further erosion of the separation between church and state.”
In the lengthy profile of coach Joe Kennedy, writer Greg Bishop noted that the magazine conducted extensive interviews with Kennedy and his legal team, along with “15 other interviews, including five with independent scholars or legal experts who hold no vested interest in the outcome.”
Despite the misgivings of at least two of these legal experts, the article is framed with this headline: “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy.”
Jeremy Dys, First Liberty senior counsel, who is part of the legal team representing Kennedy, was perplexed by Sports Illustrated’s portrayal of the case.
“The article seems like it was written by two people—one sympathetic to Coach and one completely out of touch with reality,” Dys told The Washington Stand. “All Coach has ever wanted is the opportunity to pray by himself for 15-30 seconds at the 50-yard line after the game.”
The story stretches back to 2008, when Kennedy, Bremerton High School’s assistant football coach, began a simple tradition of taking a knee at the 50-yard line after the games ended and offering a short prayer. Over time, football players began to voluntarily join Kennedy as he prayed.
Eight years later in September 2015, the superintendent of Kennedy’s school district notified him that he must end his prayer ritual. Kennedy declined, and Bremerton High School fired him. The coach filed a lawsuit against the school district, and his case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Critical public reaction to Sports Illustrated’s article has been swift, with many arguing that the story displays a fundamental misunderstanding of religious freedom as enumerated in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
“I knelt and prayed after every game I played in the NFL,” tweeted former NFL placekicker Jay Feely in response to the article. “It was my way of publicly thanking [G]od. With all the challenges in today[’]s society we should encourage faith not discourage. Freedom OF religion is very different than freedom FROM religion.”
“Actually, the Court affirming Coach Kennedy’s right to live his faith upholds the bedrock of our democracy—it doesn’t erode it,” tweeted Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla.
“‘The machine backing him’ is the [U.S.] Constitution,” tweeted the Media Research Center’s Nicholas Fondacaro, referring to the article’s description of religious freedom advocacy as “a powerful right-wing machine.” “And it’s telling that Sports Illustrated thinks the Constitution is a threat to ‘democracy.’”
Arielle Del Turco, assistant director of Family Research Council’s Center for Religious Liberty, underscored the First Amendment’s protection of religious free exercise.
“Coach Kennedy’s simple act of praying alone at a high school football game isn’t ‘eroding’ America’s constitutional protections,” she noted. “To the contrary, coach Kennedy is utilizing his First Amendment right to religious freedom, which protects his ability to choose his beliefs and live out his faith, including in the public square.”
“It’s bizarre and misleading for anyone to insinuate that a simple act of private prayer is a threat to democracy,” Del Turco continued. “The fact that Sports Illustrated is willing to publish this assertion points to a larger trend of growing secular intolerance toward Christians in America.”
“We must push back on faulty understandings of the Constitution that insist Christians hide all public displays of their faith. This is simply untrue,” she concluded.
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