Coach Is Coach Is Coach

Have the Justices of the Supreme Court never played any type of organized school sport?

Public school football coach leads 50-yard line prayer meeting, which the Supreme Court now endorses

If you weren’t absolutely convinced the Supreme Court is just pretty nakedly right now approaching rulings from the perspective of Christian fundamentalist zealotry, Monday’s ruling involving a public school football coach should leave no doubt.

The coach claimed he was fired because he wanted to do private, silent prayer. That happened to have to be on the 50-yard line after games. And in the locker room. Welcoming news crews along when it started becoming a big deal.

The coach insists he never forced any team member to participate.

But anyone who’s ever played any type of organized school sport damn well knows the outsize role “coach” plays in the lives of student athletes.

There’s no “on-off” switch.

If coach wants you to do something, you do it. Whether it’s on the field, or in the locker room, or in his or her office. Whether it’s before, after, or during a game.

So if coach starts making a big show of praying, I’m going to join him whether I want to or not. Especially in high school, where my status on the team connects directly to my social status in the school, and where I’m also thinking about college, so I’m very conscious of maximizing my playing time and being sure I’m going to get a good letter of recommendation going out to prospective college coaches.

So if coach does, I do. Even if it’s unspoken. Even if maybe there is no risk in not doing. Because just in case there is a risk of something punitive in not adhering to coach’s preferences and wishes, I don’t want to be on the wrong side of that.

Does the majority of Supreme Court really not know that? Led in this instance by Justice Gorsuch, who wrote the majority opinion?

Of course not. How do I know that? It’s just not humanly possible not to know.

I’m also not against anybody’s right to pray whenever they want, wherever they want. I could be praying right now. In fact, I am. But I can also say without a doubt I am not imposing my religion on anybody, because there is no one else living in my mind. Nor would it matter if I am, because I am not simultaneously on the job as an employee of a public school district.

In other words, this isn’t about the coach’s right to pray privately, which he could’ve done a lot, whenever, at any time. It’s about him making a big fuss of it, while employed in a job that he knew did not include being able to put on a big show of it. Except now that’s changed.

“Coach’s” excuse? He wasn’t trying to make a case that might maybe make it as a test to the Supreme Court. The fact that he did it on the 50 yard line of a football field, and also in the locker room not withstanding. Nothing to call attention to himself. Nothing to see here.

So private = two places where things can never not be a big deal?

As Justice Gorsuch puts it, quoting the coach, the coach was merely proffering:

“’Thanks through prayer’ briefly and by himself ‘on the playing field.’”

Kennedy v. Bremerton p. 13

Which may be why in her dissent, (p. 41 ~) Justice Sotomayor offers more photos than I’ve ever seen as part of a dissent; of Coach Kennedy encircled by and standing above many, many kneeling players. This includes the photo we pasted at the top of this piece.

But the court again ruled his right to pray even if he was making a big show of it, is much more important than ensuring he was not imposing his religious views on other people.

Justice Gorsuch writes an opinion which I’m going to say, objectively, is one of the most ridiculous I’ve ever read. The center of the argument: that there is in fact a sort of private “on/off” switch, which needs to be honored. So if the coach was stepping away from his duties as coach for a moment to pray, then stepping back into them—even though no one would really be able to tell that’s what he was doing, and precisely which he was doing when—more power to him. Literally.

That level of reasoning on Justice Gorsuch’s part; contortion, really, cannot exist except as a shot at taking a legal cloak and attempting to use it to dress a principle that really only exists as a fundamentalist religious objective.

Because people don’t have “on-off” switches. At least not ones we can see. So how are we supposed to know when coach has flipped his switch of “off” and is now acting as a prayerful, private citizen, who will also not be judgmental or vengeful toward those who don’t join him? How are his players to know? How are their parents?

Justice Gorsuch glibly tosses aside the concern. Saying since it was parent complaints that were included in the lawsuit, not those of students themselves, they need not be considered. But isn’t it a parent’s job if not obligation to advocate for their underage children and protect them from potential undue influence if not indoctrination? Parents are being taken very seriously in a lot of other cases where they’re worried about the influence of teachers doing things some view as not fundamentally Christian (including many courts).

In some ways, this particular ruling may not mean that much in and of itself.

But there’s more!

Justice Gorsuch also uses it—as the Supreme Court seems to like to do these days—to overturn another matter of “settled law” that’s also been on the books for 50 years up til now.

In that case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court ruled that public taxpayer money could not be used to subsidize the salaries of Catholic school teachers.

As I always say, I’m not a lawyer, so maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to see what one ruling has to do with the other. Unless what Justice Gorsuch is saying is that Catholic school teachers also have that same invisible “on-off” switch that limits their teaching of religious doctrine to times of the day they’re not receiving public money for their pay. Which is exactly what he’s saying.

Here’s the way he explains it (as part of explaining why it’s wrong, or as he puts it):

Establishment Clause is implicated whenever a hypothetical reasonable observer could conclude the government endorses religion.”

So the reversal of that concept–or leaving it for “dead” as Gorsuch puts it (p. 16)–may be way more important than just one showboating coach in Washington State.

As I pointed out in my piece about overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Gorsuch signed on to an opinion written by Justice Thomas which stated:

The modern view, which presumes that States must remain both completely separate from and virtually silent on matters of religion to comply with the Establishment Clause, is fundamentally incorrect. Properly understood,the Establishment Clause does not prohibit States from favoring religion.”

Espinoza v. Montana, concurring opinion

Would this include the establishment of official state religions? Are Justices Thomas and Gorsuch at least providing a blueprint in which an individual state might successfully argue to the Court it needs to establish an official state religion in order to ensure a designated group of righteous people are able to practice their religion however and wherever and whenever they want? Based on the statement above, and those in this fresh ruling, why wouldn’t it?

At the very least, it guts the idea of the crucial importance of secular public education.

Especially with the added “bonus” of overturning another very ensconced, very important ruling about the separation of church and state, this really seems to lay the groundwork for that.