Sports Illustrated Accuses Praying High School Football Coach of Eroding a ‘Bedrock of American Democracy’

Joe Kennedy
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sports Illustrated blasted the coming Supreme Court decision that is likely to affirm that a high school football coach can pray during a game, with the magazine calling that move an “erosion” of a bedrock principle of American democracy.

Writing for the magazine, Greg Bishop falsely claimed that expressing religious ideas in government-supported schools violates the concept of “separation of church and state.” However, the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld certain religious expression in schools on multiple occasions, not to mention that attacks on religion in schools are a modern trend that formed little part of court cases until the modern age.

The case was brought to the SCOTUS by Bremerton High School assistant coach Joe Kennedy who was sanctioned back in by his school district in 2015 for praying on the field with his players.

Writer Bishop describes the case this way:

Regardless, the coach makes for an unlikely figurehead in these legal theatrics. He was aimless for most of his 53 years. For decades, he wasn’t religious at all, and he isn’t overtly so now. He never followed football all that closely. And yet, he is now at the center of a seven-year legal conflict that started with that covenant—to pray after every game. That morphed into a controversy, then a circus, then a lawsuit centered on the First Amendment and its clauses. That broadened into a political brawl. That widened into a culture-war cudgel. And that wound through the court system, until case No. 21-418 landed on the docket for the Supreme Court of the United States.

Tellingly, when Bishop goes to describe “The Stakes” of this case, he reports it solely from the left-wing, anti-religion side of the case calling Christians “white nationalists” and “Christian nationalists” who want to destroy American democracy. In his “The Stakes” section, Bishop does not once quote the side supporting Kennedy’s right to pray on school property. Instead, he only quotes those wishing to end Kennedy’s religious freedoms.

Football prayer

Bremerton coach Joe Kennedy leads team in prayer (Meegan M. Reid/Kitsap Sun via AP)

Further down in the story, Bishop finally gets around to telling readers about First Liberty, the group representing Kennedy pro bono in the case, but does not give them much by direct quotes, only his summation of their ideas and words. And nowhere in the story does Bishop cite any cases that might tend to support the coach’s religious free speech.
Still, during opening arguments for the case, many of the precedents that support coach Kennedy’s right to pray during a game were included. For example, as seen on pages 24 through 41 of the official opening brief, the U.S. Supreme Court has often ruled in favor of teachers and school employees having a right to free speech and religious freedom while on duty. And since coach Kennedy’s prayer was neither coercive (i.e., he did not require students to participate) nor sanctioned by the school, his prayer does not amount to school-sanctioned religion.

The main focus of Bishop’s article, though, seems to be to belittle coach Kennedy. Throughout the piece, Bishop constantly describes Kennedy as “aimless,” shiftless, and struggling to find meaning in his life, thereby coloring the coach as a nobody whose sudden fame earned as a result of this case makes him a joke of a human being. As if any of Kennedy’s life history makes any difference at all to the case that has brought him to the Supreme Court.

Why does it matter if Kennedy has not been religious for much of his life? Why does it matter that Kennedy has not been a life-long football coach? Why does it matter if his praying was calculated or spur of the moment? What does his marriage history matter? None of this matters to the case, but Bishop piles paragraph after paragraph after paragraph into this long article giving the man short shrift and denigrating his existence as if it is all so meaningful. What is clear is that Bishop is attempting to undermine the case in readers’ minds by making Kennedy seem to be a hapless clown who is not worthy of being the focal point of such an important court case.

Bishop’s contempt for coach Kennedy oozes from this piece and is best revealed in one of the last paragraphs of this smear job:

Does Kennedy know? Does he care? Or did he evolve to embrace playing the “hero,” and having this large of a purpose? Maybe the political operatives who stood with him found the perfect mark, a man in search of a calling, a grand stage. They gave him the biggest theater imaginable—the Supreme Court—to further their agenda, while groups fighting for their own aims joined in. After all, football never drove Kennedy, nor did faith, until more recently. But this saga of faith-and-football now reads like Kennedy’s own Christian football movie. He’s the hero. He wins, and for everyone on his side.

Bishop’s final attack makes clear that he thinks coach Kennedy is a self-important stooge who doesn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to be allowed to serve as the focus of this momentous case. And therefore, the case itself is illegitimate because he doesn’t like the coach.

Throughout the piece, Bishop also attacks those evil conservatives who are “packing courts’ and undermining democracy.

In another segment of this long smear piece, Bishop reacts in alarm that during the Reagan years, conservatives began to “undertake a systematic packing of courts with judges who don’t really believe in the separation.”

What he does not note is that this trend beginning in the 1980s was not a plot born of whole cloth but a reaction to decades of left-wing judges delivering rulings that had undermined the U.S. Constitution, American traditions, and societal stability. Conservatives didn’t just one day wave their hand unbidden and decide to “pack the courts” with like-minded, activist judges. It was a movement born after decades of left-wing judicial activism.

This Sports Illustrated article is little else but a long smear against Christians, conservatives, and white people in general, and coach Kennedy in particular, and on a vicious personal level, at that.

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