WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford (R-OK) today spoke on the Senate floor to defend Bremerton, Washington School District football coach Joe Kennedy’s First Amendment right to pray after games. Since 2008, Assistant Coach Kennedy has practiced a tradition of praying at the 50-yard line after the conclusion of games. At times, students have chosen to pray with him. Earlier this month, and after seven years, the Bremerton School District ordered Coach Kennedy to stop.
On Tuesday, Senator Lankford and Representative Randy Forbes (R-VA), co-chairmen of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, led a Member of Congress letter to Bremerton, Washington School District officials to defend Coach Joe Kennedy’s freedom to exercise his religion. A video and transcript of Senator Lankford’s remarks on the Senate Floor follow.
Below is the transcript from the speech:
Mr. President, it’s just past the middle of football season in America. It’s a sad thing for all of us who are football fans. This is a time when fans start thinking seriously about the playoffs and other fans start thinking seriously about trying to get their coach fired. In Bremerton, Washington, Coach Joe Kennedy is in trouble not because the team has a losing record, but; because he has the audacity to kneel down and pray on the 50-yard line after the football games are over and thank God he gets a chance to coach there and for the safety of his players. Gratitude to God is certainly not a crime in America. In fact, it is encouraged every year in the National Prayer Proclamation given by every president for decades and decades, including this one. Coach Joe Kennedy is the varsity assistant coach and the J.V. Head coach in Bremerton, Washington. He enjoys working with the guys and coaching football. He has an excellent employment record at the school and has been a great motivator of the guys on his team. Since 2008, Coach Kennedy has the habit of walking out to the 50-yard line after the game is over, kneeling down to pray.
After a few weeks that he started doing this, in 2008, a couple of the Christian students on the team asked if they could come and kneel down next to him, which he has done and allowed them to do. They’re not required to pray. They’re not required to be there at all. But those students have the freedom to be able to exercise their faith. So does Coach Kennedy. But for some reason, this season’s been different. Now the district has asked the coach not to pray after the games. Instead, they want to provide him a private room where he can go and pray separately so no one will see him. I have a letter from the district where they said they gave him this accommodation, “a private location within the school building athletic facility or press box could be made available to you for a brief religious exercise before and after games.” So literally go into another spot so that no one will see you pray, seems to be the accommodation here. Literally saying to him, you have the freedom to pray in a location that we choose. The district has a fear that if anyone sees the coach praying, they may think that the coach endorses or that the district endorses a particular faith.
They wrote in a separate letter to the coach, these criteria here to say, as we go forward, these are the standards to apply. And I quote from the district — “Students are free to initiate and engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with the school or team activities. Student religious activity must be entirely and genuinely student initiated and may not be suggested, encouraged or discouraged or supervised by district staff. Second, if students engage in religious activity, school staff may not take any action likely to be perceived by a reasonable observer who is aware of the history and context of such activity as an endorsement of that activity. Examples identified in the Borden case include kneeling or bowing of the head during the students’ religious activity. You and all district staff are free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities. Such activity must be physically separate from any student activity and students may not be allowed to join such activity. In order to avoid the perception of endorsement discussed above, such activities should be non-demonstrative,” in other words, you can’t see it outwardly visible as a religious activity, “if students are also engaged in religious conduct or it should not occur while students are not engaging in such religious conduct.”
In other words, don’t get near a Christian student when they are praying and also bow your head. It’s an odd thing that the district would worry that their actions would be perceived that they may have an official policy for Christianity, but they don’t seem to have the same worry that their actions to try to eliminate anyone expressing their faith would be an official policy of atheism at the campus. Since if they purged all displays of faith from any person, it would appear that no faith is the endorsed faith of the district.
Under this policy, if a teacher who is a Christian sees another Christian student praying, they have to get away from them or at least walk past them as if they’re disinterested. I don’t think people understand how offensive that is to our faith. If I see a student praying, I want to stand by them, to hear their prayer, to be encouraged by their prayer. Under this policy, if a Christian student had been bullied at school and they wanted to sit by a Christian teacher at lunch when that student at lunch bowed their head to pray over their low-calorie lunch meal, the Christian teacher would either have to walk away or they would have to ignore their prayer, further ostracizing the student. Citizens don’t lose their freedom or faith just because they also work for a state or federal agency. People can display their faith, as this coach did for seven years, and it’s not been a problem for this coach to kneel down and pray at the end of the game. I’m confused why suddenly why the district is now concerned about this display of faith. Individuals can display their faith personally. It’s their personal faith. It’s not some endorsement by the district.
A Wiccan teacher could wear a pentagram necklace. A Muslim teacher could wear a head scarf. A Christian could bow their head to pray at lunch, even faculty member. A Sikh teacher could wear a turban. All of those are outward displays of a certain faith. How can a school district say that if you display your faith in a way that someone else can see it and figure out that you have faith, suddenly that’s a violation of the establishment clause of the Constitution? Courts have ruled that in a school setting, prayer cannot be mandatory in the school, compelled by the school, led by the school, while some have a problem with this interpretation, frankly I don’t. I, quite frankly, think that teachers have multiple different faiths and multiple backgrounds, and I have the responsibility as a parent to train my child how to pray, consistent with our faith. That’s not the responsibility that teacher at school to be able to teach them their faith. That’s my job. But I do have a problem when an individual teacher is restrained from practicing their own faith or an individual student is restricted from that. It’s entirely different when a district states that a coach may not quietly pray or allow students to voluntarily participate with a coach in prayer when they share the same faith.
After a game is over and all the players are free to leave, that’s air own free time. They could go to the locker room, they could talk to their parents, they could flirt the cheerleaders on the sidelines, that’s their own time. They can choose to do what they want to do, but they shouldn’t be restricted from praying if they also choose to do that. The Bremerton school district attorneys have chosen to apply the Borden v. School District of the township of East Brunswick to this particular case. In that case, the coaches couldn’t lead a prayer or participate if all the players were required to be present before the game. This is a required team meeting in the Borden School District of the Township of East Brunswick. This is completely different. This is after the game when no player is required, no one’s expected to be there and those students and those coaches are on a brief period of respite after the game.
For some reason, in this day and age, citizens, some citizens have become terrified of faith in America and prayer in America. They’re frightened when people exercise their faith and live according to their sincerely held religious beliefs, and so they try to quash it, quiet it. It’s astounding to me as a nation that was based on this basic principle of people being able to live their faith, not just to have it but to be able to live it. If a coach went to the 50-yard line after the game, sat down in a lawn chair and drank a coke, no one would have a problem. If a coach went to the 50-yard line after the game this Friday night, sang Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and did the dance moves, it would be a YouTube sensation, but the district would have no problem with it. But if a coach goes to the 50-yard line, kneels down and silently prays, somehow that’s a different type of speech or action. It’s not. It’s speech. It’s the freedom of faith.
It’s who we are as Americans and our diversity in America. There’s nothing different about that speech. The Establishment Clause of the Constitution is clear. Congress shall make no law establishing—respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This is not the freedom to have a religion. This is the freedom to exercise it. It’s very clear in the Constitution. For some in this generation, they want to talk about freedom of worship. You can worship and you can go to a place of worship, you can worship anybody, any way you want to, if you go over there and do it, but they don’t want people to actually come out and be able to live their faith publicly. We don’t have freedom of worship in America. China has freedom of worship. We have the free exercise of religion, where we can live our faith outside of our church buildings, in our private lives, even if you’re a public individual. It is reasonable for this Congress to speak out on this issue, because it’s a First Amendment freedom.
Protecting one coach’s right to pray protects every person’s right to pray in the nation. So let me ask a question. Is the district going to engage in stopping coaches from kneeling down on the sideline during the fourth quarter in a last-second field goal attempt and prevent them from praying on the sidelines? That’s a rich tradition in football. Or how about this moment? Last Saturday, Oklahoma State University, we had an incredible tragedy where a car careened through the homecoming parade, killing many and injuring many more. It was a horrible tragedy. It happened just hours before the game. The players and coaches at Oklahoma State University walked out of the tunnel, and before the game started, when typically they would all gather and cheer together, they instead chose as players and coaches to kneel down on the sideline and to pray for the families that were affected just hours before in this incredible tragedy.
This apparently offends some people, that people in a state setting would express their private faith. Nothing was mandated about this. This was a group of players and coaches that their heart was grieved for what was happening in their city and among the Oklahoma State family. This shouldn’t be prohibited in America. This is who we are. Now, I don’t challenge the people in Bremerton. These are all honorable people who want what’s best for Bremerton, Washington families. They all care about their kids there, both the superintendent and the principal, the coaches, they all care about the kids there. This is a genuine misunderstanding of what our nation protects and what our nation stands for. Article 6, Clause 3 of the Constitution says this: “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the United States.”
In our Constitution, any individual that serves in any public trust in the United States doesn’t have to set their faith aside nor have to take on any faith. In America, you could have a faith and live it or you could have no faith at all. That’s the United States of America. In this Chamber, every day, including today, the Chaplain for the United States Senate begins our session in prayer. In this Chamber, the words “In God We Trust” are written right above the main doors as you walk in. The same as it is in the House Chamber above the Speaker’s chair. We’re not a nation that is trying to purge all faith. We’re a nation that allows people to live their faith. I would ask individuals that would choose to in this chamber right now to even pray with me as I close this statement out.
Father, I pray for Coach Kennedy and the leadership at Bremerton, the superintendents and the principals, they have a difficult job, and I pray that you would bless them today. And I pray that you would encourage those students as they struggle with this basic religious freedom that we have as a nation, that there would be a unity there and a decision that would be made that would clearly stand on the side of freedom. For the coaches and teachers of all faiths that serve there and that serve across our nation, I pray that you would bless those coaches and teachers today. They do a difficult task. As they walk with students through difficult decisions, I pray that you would encourage them in their faith. Thank you, Jesus, for the way that you do sustain our nation and for the freedom that we have, and we ask your help in protecting it. In your name I pray, Amen.
With that, Mr. President, I yield back.