Photo Credit: Wikipedia / Torsten Bolten

It’s a tough call. Which is why, I suppose, the Supreme Court is divided on the issue. Predictably the politically conservative justices seem to side in favor of the free expression side of the First Amendment. The politically liberal justices seemed to side in favor of the separation side of it.

The Washington Post (via Matzav) published the controversy over the firing of Joseph A. Kennedy, a former high school football coach for ‘taking a knee’ after  a game. Only this time it wasn’t to protest racism. It was in the form of prayer. Apparently school officials thought this was a violation of the First Amendment:


Kennedy’s lawyer said the coach was asking only for a private moment to take a knee and express gratitude to God on the gridiron after a game.

Were the players coerced into some form of prayer fearing repercussions from the coach for not doing so? And is that kind of fear really a form of coercion? I don’t think he required it of any of the players. But as a believer, he just felt it appropriate to thank God for the team’s victory – and would have been happy to see members of his team do that too. I’m also pretty sure that this would not have affected their grades had they chosen not to go along and simply walk back to the locker room.

Was Kennedy’s constitutional right to freely exercise his religion violated by the school? Or were they justified in firing him for violating it by mixing ‘church and state’?

Like I said it’s a tough call. One that might be decided on the free exercise side of the issue since the Supreme Court’s conservative majority are more likely to see Kennedy’s firing as a violation of his rights.

The question for me is, how should the Orthodox Jewish community look at it? Which decision would favor us more. One that protects religious freedom or one that protects church state separation?

Both clauses to the constitution are equally important. Obviously we do not want to be placed in a situation where, for example’ a Christian football coach forces his players to pray with him. Yet we also need to protect our rights to exercise our religion freely. For example as in a case where a city council arbitrarily decides to limit synagogue construction while allowing church construction to continue unabated.

What about this case? Which side the argument offers us better protection? Does a  taking a knee in prayer in front of Jewish players violate their freedom because the Jewish players might feel coerced (even if only  psychologically) into prayer with him? Or is what he did totally irrelavent to our protected religious freedom?

I tend to side with the latter. Even if the coach is clearly praying to his god. As long as he doesn’t in any way force his players to pray, I see no harm in his doing that. On the other hand firing someone for praying on a football field might impact us negatively if the shoe were on the other foot. If for example an Orthodox Jewish coach of a public high school Davens Mincha after the game, should he be fired for doing so? If not, what if he added ‘those who want to pray, thanking God for our victory may do so – without specifying which religion?

I don’t think that should not be considered a violation of the First Amendment. If on the other hand he tells his players they must pray – even if they are told to do it accorndig to the tenets of their own faith, that probably would be a violation of the separation clause of the Frist Amendment.

In any case I thought this story would be interesting food for thought.


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Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at [email protected].