Just days after declaring pregnancy a sacrament, the Supreme Court announced a bold ruling in favor of performative Christianity. Never mind that tiresome business about no establishment of religion; the holy Republican majority in their priestly robes have liberated the nation’s public school football coaches to get on with the serious business of saving souls.
The court ruled in favor of an assistant coach in Bremerton, Washington, who had lost his lawsuit against the school board that chose not to renew his contract after he refused to stop holding prayer meetings with his players and others at the 50-yard line after high school football games.
The Supremes held that Joseph A. Kennedy’s showboating for Jesus was exactly like “a Christian aide ... praying quietly over her lunch in the cafeteria.”
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As near as I can determine, the author of the decision, Trump appointee Justice Neil Gorsuch, never attended a public school: He’s a total academic hothouse flower. In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, whose life experience is considerably broader, took the rare step of enclosing photos from the evidentiary record by way of demonstrating that what Gorsuch characterized as private devotional moments were, in fact, public spectacles.
She added that athletic coaches have considerable influence over their young charges: “Students look up to their teachers and coaches as role models and seek their approval,” she wrote. “Students also depend on this approval for tangible benefits. Players recognize that gaining the coach’s approval may pay dividends small and large, from extra playing time to a stronger letter of recommendation to additional support in college athletic recruiting.”
If the coach holds a prayer session, what sophomore quarterback will feel free to not drop to his knees? And if he’s a Jew, a Muslim or a Hindu? As Jay Michaelson put it in The Daily Beast, such devotionals tend to be about “as official as a fire drill.”
Remember, this is a public school, not a private religious academy.
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Here’s how a Republican-appointed justice for the Ninth Circuit described the evidence in rejecting the coach’s appeal: Coach Kennedy “prayed out loud in the middle of the football field” at game’s end, “surrounded by players, members of the opposing team, parents, a local politician and members of the news media with television cameras recording the event, all of whom had been advised of Kennedy’s intended actions through the local news and social media.”
In short, he staged a religious publicity stunt at a public high school where students are supposed to be free from government-sponsored proselytizing.
Here’s what coach Kennedy’s Lord and Savior said about theatrical displays of religiosity in Matthew 6:5: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others... But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father... and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
No matter. Nothing excites a certain kind of zealot more than ignoring the plain meaning of what they otherwise affirm as divinely inspired Scripture. Also, some pious exegete can no doubt be found who will construe the meaning of “your room” as “football stadium.”
For the rest of us, the clear message of this dreary little episode is that in the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s not about facts and evidence. It’s about who’s got the votes. It’s as rigged as the College of Cardinals. If Gorsuch describes a come-to-Jesus pep rally at a homecoming game as a quiet devotional, and if five of his like-minded colleagues agree, then ecclesiastical ceremonies can commence all across the country.
And no doubt will, particularly in red states and rural communities, where religious minorities already know their place. Because it’s only partly about religion. Mostly, it’s about tribal identity: who belongs, who’s in charge, who’s a ‘Real American,’ and who is merely tolerated. There is no chance — zero — that this Supreme Court would have ruled in favor of a religious minority.
Christian nationalism is what it’s called, a perversion of patriotism and faith. How can you tell? Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert, the second-dumbest person in the U.S. Congress, is all excited about it.
Boebert told a Colorado religious gathering, “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it.”
She spoke of her disgust with “this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter.”
The “stinking letter,” of course, was written by Thomas Jefferson.
Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”
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