Credit: Kamil Szumotalski / Unsplash

DOMINUS VOBISCUM: Contrary to what some might expect, I’m a big believer in prayer. On a good day, it’s a venue through which our better angels can sing. On a bad day, it’s a lifeline for people going down the third time. And on in-between days, how can it hurt?

That being acknowledged, I also believe prayer — much like masturbation — should take place in private and firmly behind closed doors. Where it does not belong is on the 50-yard line of a public high school football stadium right after the big game surrounded by more than 20 players with helmets hoisted high.

Jesus, I am told, agrees with me. He actually weighed in on this matter. In the Book of Matthew (6:5-8) Jesus is quoted as saying, “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by other men.” Then for good measure, he added, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen.” 

No doubt he was misquoted.

Or at least taken out of context.

Maybe he thought it was off the record.

We’ll be anxiously awaiting the demand for retraction. 

Bringing this to mind, obviously, is the most recent Supreme Court ruling that says Joseph Kennedy — the all-too-happy-to-be-persecuted former assistant football coach for a high school in Bremerton, Washington — should be given his job back. Kennedy’s contract was famously not extended in 2015 after he repeatedly took to the 50-yard line after games to lead group prayer sessions despite being notified — repeatedly — this violated the school district’s policy about separation of church and state. Kennedy was told he could continue to engage in worshipful acts on school property just so long as he did not bow his head in reverential supplication under the Lights of Friday Night. 

Even at the Supreme Court level, it seems, the “facts” as to how Kennedy did or did not behave have become fungible in the extreme. What Justice Neil Gorsuch — who wrote the majority opinion — asserts is so markedly different from what Justice Sonia Sotomayor — who wrote the dissenting opinion — described as to constitute two entirely separate incidents. Gorsuch uses such adjectives as “quiet” and “fleeting” to describe the degree of intrusion the coach’s prayers inflicted to the surrounding multitudes. With customary hauteur, Justice Gorsuch dismisses concerns about a possible church-state conflict as “a mere shadow of a conflict” and “a false choice premised on a misconstruction.” To further gild the lily, Gorsuch belittled what he termed “phantom constitutional violations.”

The first thing I used to read in the morning was the funny pages. Now I go straight to the Supreme Court rulings. 

It should be noted that I attended Catholic school for nine years. This might color my perceptions. I started each day reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then the Hail Mary to be followed by the Our Father. Pictures of Jesus and John F. Kennedy beamed down at us. Around 4th grade, they added the Act of Contrition, during which we all atoned and pounded our chests like Tarzan over all kinds of sins to which it had not occurred to us yet to even aspire.

In hindsight, I got a great education. To this day, I still know the difference between a direct and indirect object. I defy anyone to diagram a sentence faster than I can. The real genius of Catholic education is they don’t let anyone hide. You will learn. Contrary to popular pedagogical dogma, humiliation is extremely effective as a teaching tool. Admittedly, lines did get crossed. More than once, I had my head placed in a garbage can, only to come up with a face full of mustard from the remains of another kid’s sandwich. And that was the least of it. But I was never touched inappropriately.

As a kid, I played soccer and baseball — goalie and catcher — as part of school sports under the auspices of the Catholic Youth Organization. Did we pray? Only before every single game. In a big loud circle in the middle of the field. Arms outstretched, hands on top of one another’s. The other teams, of course, did exactly the same. We made a strategic point to pray to the Virgin Mary. God, we figured, might have other things to do. It must have worked. Along the way, we managed to win a few championships.

Divine intervention? 

When I later attended a heathen public high school, I ran cross-country. We also won a few championships. As runners, we were strictly mediocre, myself especially so. The coach, however, was amazing: charismatic, driven, inspiring, and certifiably psychotic. He brought out the best in us with fear and intimidation. He — we would find out later — had been touching some of the students inappropriately. 

Pick your poison.

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Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayor — both Catholics, by the way — failed to even address the most salient question. What difference did Coach Kennedy’s prayer sessions have on his team’s win-loss record? They didn’t even allude to it. I found myself forced to ask Jerry Cornfield, a former great political reporter — and sports nut — at the Independent and who now works for the Everett Herald in Washington. Cornfield stressed Kennedy was only an assistant coach, so the extent to which he could inject his prayerful mojo was diffuse. Before, during, and after Kennedy’s tenure, Cornfield noted, his team was never in the hunt for a league championship. But there was a slight uptick, Cornfield said, in victories. “It looks like prayer did get a couple wins,” Cornfield stated. 

So there’s that. 

I never much liked Neil Gorsuch before. Having read his ruling on the Kennedy case, I like him less. It’s a masterpiece of double-speak, weasel words, and hair-splitting. The whole gist of Gorsuch’s case is that somehow Coach Kennedy was not acting as a representative of a government agency — the school district — when he led these 50-yard-line prayer sessions. Even though Kennedy was in the stadium, on the clock, and still very much responsible for the well-being of his high school football players, Gorsuch would have us believe the coach’s antics on the 50-yard line were somehow separate, distinct, and totally apart from his employment by the Bremerton School District. Merely to make such a nakedly disingenuous argument is to label anyone within earshot a total fool. In the Catholic school I attended, that would be an invitation to fight. 

And then there are his facts.

Justice Sotomayor put it politely but bluntly. “To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet,” she wrote, “it misconstrues the facts.”

Among Supreme Court justices, them’s fighting words, too.

Kennedy’s attestation of faith was anything but quiet or fleeting. It did evolve overtime; it had its ups and downs. But it was a sustained weekly ritual during football games. In the beginning of his career, he would kneel on the 50-yard line and quietly pray. Over time, it grew. His own players would join in. And Kennedy would reach out to opposing coaches and players to participate. 

Sotomayor peppered her dissent with photographs of these sessions. Imagine two teams crammed into the same huddle, and you get the idea. Coach Kennedy is the only one standing; everyone else is kneeling with heads bowed. Kennedy is holding one or two helmets in the air and he exhorts the teaming multitudes with an inspirational speech laced heavily with religious references. 

When an opposing coach said he thought this was “cool” to a representative of the Bremerton district, Kennedy was asked to tone it down. Find another place to pray. Don’t pray so ostentatiously. They might have said, “Don’t pray on street corners to be seen by other men.” If they did, that might violate the separation between church and state. But they’d be right. 

Kennedy didn’t back down. Instead he became a cause célèbre, another persecuted victim of secular society. There was nothing the least bit quiet or fleeting about him. He sought out reporters and held press conferences describing his plans to show up and pray anyway. At a game on October 16, 2015, television crews surrounded the post-game gridiron prayer. Members of the public rushed the field to join Kennedy, Sotomayor wrote, jumping fences and knocking down members of the marching band. 

Self-described Satanists notified the district they would seek equal time on the 50-yard line in future games. Kennedy further fueled the flames by posting all this on his Facebook account. Two weeks later, Kennedy and his dirty knees were back. Supportive members of the public joined in. So too did state representatives seeking to score political points with the true-believer demographic. The head coach wound up quitting after 11 years. He worried someone could get shot by an armed nut in the crowd. Three of the other five assistant coaches did not reapply for their positions. 

And yes, along the way, some players’ parents complained their sons said they felt pressured to show up. Maybe it was all implicit. Maybe nobody actually said anything. Maybe had they had their head pushed into a garbage can, they wouldn’t be so overly sensitive. But high school jocks are sublimely dependent upon the good feelings of their coaches for so many things. Nothing need be said; the relationship is inherently coercive. Kennedy would resign before his contract was not renewed. It’s telling that after he departed, so too did the prayer circles at the 50-yard line.

These are grim times. Prayer is called for. But listen to the Man: “Go into your room and close the door.”

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