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Tony Perkins / Oct. 28, 2015

Intentional Grounding of Coach's Rights

Joe Kennedy is a veteran of two wars — but now he's fighting a new enemy: political correctness. The Bremerton football coach didn't spend 20 years defending freedom only to have his stolen, but that's exactly what the school district is threatening. A week and a half after the revered coach put his job on the line by resuming his midfield prayer, the Washington State Education Superintendent is lining up with the opposition.

Joe Kennedy is a veteran of two wars — but now he’s fighting a new enemy: political correctness. The Bremerton football coach didn’t spend 20 years defending freedom only to have his stolen, but that’s exactly what the school district is threatening. A week and a half after the revered coach put his job on the line by resuming his midfield prayer, the Washington State Education Superintendent is lining up with the opposition.

In a statement late last week, Randy Dorn tried to justify the censorship by claiming that, “School officials are role models; leading a prayer might put a student in an awkward position even if the prayer is voluntary. What’s more, that official could open up the district to a lawsuit.” Well, he’s right about one thing. The controversy has opened up the district to a lawsuit — but from the person whose rights are being trampled.

When the district showed that it had no interest in accommodating the coach’s First Amendment rights, the Marine vet went on the offensive, suing the district for the freedom he risked his life for. With the help of Liberty Institute, Joe is asking the courts to grant him what the superintendent won’t: religious exercise. “I was really shocked,” he told Fox News’s Todd Starnes. “I went out of my way to accommodate them. All I wanted to do was pray — and now I can’t even pray at all.” In a weak attempt at compromise, Bremerton offered to find a space to let Joe pray after games, under one condition: that it wouldn’t be “observable to students or the public.”

Not surprisingly, this hide-it-under-a-bushel option didn’t sit well with the coach, who, for seven years, had never once coerced a student to join him at midfield. “What they are saying is he cannot pray by himself, he cannot simply take a knee at the 50-yard-line,” fired back Liberty’s Hiram Sasser. “That’s like telling a coach he can’t wear a yarmulke if he’s Jewish, he can’t wear a turban if he’s a Sikh, he can’t pray to Mecca if he’s a Muslim, he can’t wear a cross necklace if he’s a Christian.” Still, the district insists, “Any further violations will be grounds for discipline, up to and including discharge from District employment.”

Stop praying or start walking. That’s the message from the “tolerant” Left. There’s just one problem: the school’s decision isn’t rooted in the law. Teachers, coaches, administrators — or public employees of any kind — don’t lose their religious freedom when they step on school property. Insisting otherwise is a violation of their civil rights.

As Liberty Institute’s attorneys made quite clear in a letter to Bremerton officials: “No reasonable observer could conclude that a football coach who waits until the game is over and the players have left the field and then walks to mid-field to say a short, private, personal prayer is speaking on behalf of the state. Quite the opposite, Coach Kennedy is engaged in private religious expression upon which the state may not infringe. In fact, any attempt by Bremerton School District to ban or prohibit Coach Kennedy — or any private citizen — praying violates the First Amendment.”

[Tuesday], even the Congressional Prayer Caucus got in the game with a letter signed by 46 members to Bremerton, reminding it: “Among the most basic rights that Americans enjoy are the free exercise of religion, free speech, and the freedom of association. The Establishment Clause exists to ensure that the government cannot affirmatively impose or elevate one religion over another. However, it does not prohibit the government from referencing religion altogether, nor does it require that government officials proactively scrub all references of religion from the public square.”

In the meantime, Joe may lose his job — but not his faith. No one knows better than this combat veteran: the battles — on the field and off — belong to the Lord.

Latest Youth Poll a Barna Burner!

It’s amazing to think that millennials have never experienced things like walkmans or pay phones. But the next generation may miss out on something even more important: religious liberty. In one of the more shocking developments of the new era, freedom is quickly becoming obsolete for men and women of faith.

And older Americans aren’t the only ones noticing. Young adults are keenly aware of the profound shift taking place in our nation under President Obama. With every Coach Kennedy, Kelvin Cochran, and Melissa Klein, Millennials are realizing that the rights their parents and grandparents enjoyed are no longer a given — rights to worship, pray, and even think independently. When asked, a whopping 56% of practicing Christian millennials said they are “very concerned about the state of religious liberty in America — up 37% from just three years ago. That’s even more alarm than their Baby Boomer parents registered.

Obviously, Barna explains, a lot of factors are contributing to this — not the least of which is social media. "They see the debates about things like same-sex marriage and Kim Davis happening in real time. Younger Christians are recognizing the implications for their future — what perhaps once felt like something that would only affect clergy and Christian leaders, now it feels like it could have a bearing on life for ordinary citizens.”

Thanks to the Obama administration, which has waged a seven-year war against religious faith and expression, these young people have watched the protections their parents experienced evaporate. “[T]he erosion of freedom has increased in our lifetime more rapidly than in any generation before us,” Alliance Defending Freedom’s Allison Howard pointed out. “We’ve grown up seeing bakers, photographers, CEOs, florists, sportscasters, professors, and fire chiefs get attacked and pushed out of their careers because of their peacefully-expressed moral convictions. We’ve seen the consequences of heavy-handed government and reckless court rulings on individuals, families, businesses, and our most precious freedoms.”

Fortunately, that concern is trickling up to the presidential campaign, where even moderate candidates are starting to recognize the issue as a key one for 2016. For both sides, the landscape is radically changed from four years ago. In the last presidential election, only 32% of Christian millennials were concerned about threats to religious freedom. Now, that figure has almost doubled. In the meantime, the RNC and presidential campaigns have seen the polling trends and seem to be responding to it in different ways. As a result, we see GOP hopefuls like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.), and Gov. Mike Huckabee regularly talk about the importance of protecting men and women of faith. In one of the more positive signs of this trend, even the Republican Party is hiring outreach staff to convey their seriousness on restoring the freedom to believe to every American.

As younger Christians are more aware of the growing tension on personal Religious Liberty, FRC is offering a way for them to be directly involved. ##GivingTuesday — an annual social media giving event to be held on Dec. 1st, 2016 — will offer the opportunity for all Americans to support the efforts of FRC as we seek to vigorously protect religious liberties throughout the country.


This is a publication of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins is president of FRC.

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