High school football coach Joe Kennedy has opened the door to Texas lawyers and Satan in Western Washington by insisting that he has the right to lead Christian post-game prayers in his official role as a public employee.
Kennedy, who is now suspended from his job for refusing to comply with district (and federal, constitutional) rules, has attracted the attention of the Liberty Institute, a Texas-based Religious Right legal group that is threatening to sue, calling Kennedy’s paid leave a “hostile employment action.”
Many outsiders, by contrast, see Kennedy as yet another public employee who thinks he’s entitled to keep his job without just doing it—like Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who insisted on denying marriage licenses to gay couples rather than either resigning or following the Supreme Court equality ruling.
The editorial board of the Seattle Times in comparing Kennedy to Davis commented that, “[Public employees] don’t have to abandon their religion at the door. But a condition of the job is that they must accept limits, respect the nuances of the Constitution and know that it’s for the greater good. Some refuse to accept these terms of public service and should find another job.” To take Davis’s refusal to its logical, biblical extreme, and understand why these rules serve the public good, see “A Biblical Guide to Marriage Licenses.”
As conservative Christians rallied around Kennedy, likening him to Daniel in the lions’ den or even Jesus on the cross, other members of the Bremerton community including Bremerton High’s senior class president, Abe Bartlett, contacted to The Satanic Temple, a fringe religious group with a history of church-state activism.
The Satanic Temple appealed to the Bremerton School District for their own right to hold public football prayers. In an email exchange with Hemant Mehta of The Friendly Atheist, they described the ritual they had planned:
We’re going to be in black robes, heads covered like Sith Lords. If Joe Kennedy starts to pray, we will begin our solemn march accompanied by a gong to the 50 yard line in a V-formation, with Lilith in front. She will have an incense burner in each extended arm. When we get to the 50 yard line, she hands the incense off to people behind her and begins the invocation… With each sentence the gong will ring.
The invocation will likely end with a repeating “Ava Satanas!” (Hail Satan) led by Lilith.
We encourage any student or attendee to wear black to show solidarity.
The Satanic Temple explicitly states that they don’t believe in a literal Satan or any form of supernaturalism for that matter. Rather, their spiritual icon is the Satan of literature, a rebel against tyranny. (In the mythic literature of the Bible itself, Satan is a rebel figure who—in contrast to the figure of Yahweh modeled on an Iron Age war lord—kills fewer than a dozen people and then only with Yahweh’s permission.) After Kennedy and his prayer were suspended, the temple dropped their prayer plans, encouraging members simply to attend the pre-Halloween game. About a dozen members from Seattle gathered quietly outside the stadium, dressed in hooded black robes, and waved at student.
Many Conservative Christians are victims of their own superstition, seeing all of life as a battle between the forces of evil and good aligned against each other on an unseen spiritual plane. Some supporters of Kennedy panicked at the thought of Satanists coming to their small city, which sits across Puget Sound, a ferry ride from Seattle. To his credit, Kennedy himself offered some reassurance to his Facebook followers, “They are just people, . . Their beliefs are . . . Well it’s their beliefs.”
One of the paradoxical ironies of Christian belief is that it often blinds Christians to their own bad behavior, leaving them with a sense of martyred victimhood known as “Christian persecution complex” when they themselves have acted badly. Until the Satanists made their move, Kennedy’s followers failed to see how their claims of religious privilege might undermine civil society and even the very religious freedom they claim to value.
Government endorsement of religion, even a popular religion—especially a popular religion—means that individuals are less free to follow the dictates of their own conscience. Unless anything goes, it puts government officials in the role of weighing which prayers pass muster and which don’t. In a world where 18,000 children die daily of starvation, one might question the priorities of a coach who models seeking God’s assistance in beating the Wolverines rather than, say, bringing rains to drought-stricken Africa. One might.
At a lighter level, a public official tasked with managing football prayers might even ask whether praying before football games is cheating.
But what gives me license to pose these questions here, in print, in an article about high school education and sports, is the fact that Joe Kennedy chose to do his praying in a public institution, in his role as a public servant, on the public dime. America’s founders established separation of church and state because they knew all too well what happens to both religion and government when the two become fused.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.