For nearly as long as there have been football coaches, there have been praying football coaches. And praying football coaches have frequently been at the center of the rough-and-tumble, back-and-forth debate over the place of religion in American public education.
Joseph Kennedy, a high school coach from the Seattle area, is the latest to take the field. The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on Monday. His lawyers will argue that the First Amendment protects his right as an American citizen to bend a knee and say a prayer after high school games.
The opposing counsel will also invoke the First Amendment, arguing that because Kennedy is paid by the public school, his prayers infringe on the rights of players, who shouldn’t be pressured to pray by a government employee.
But why football coaches? Why not praying principals, drama teachers, shop class instructors, or crossing guards? The football coach, it turns out, has a special place in the American struggle over the meaning of the freedom of religion.
We can trace the story back to one of the first men to turn coaching into a full-time profession, Amos Alonzo Stagg. He trained to be a minister before deciding, as he wrote in his autobiography, he “could influence others to Christian ideals more effectively on the field than in the pulpit.” From 1892 to 1932, Stagg built a college football powerhouse at the University of Chicago—and prayer was absolutely part of the program.
In Stagg’s day, American football was just developing as a sport. Key to its appeal and growing acceptance was the idea that it was more than a game, that it offered a space for young men to build character and develop the moral virtue needed to become America’s future leaders.
In this environment, the football coach was not just coming up with a game plan. He was shaping character, instilling morals, and inspiring leaders. For the sport to realize its character-building potential, the coach had to be seen as something more than just a coach. He was imagined as a kind of religious leader.
Even as the hypocrisies of big-time football became increasingly apparent—with coaches hired and fired based solely on wins and losses instead of the character of the young men they produced—the idea that football was a “maker of men” and a force for morality persisted. And prayer served to remind participants of the sanctity and solemn purpose of the sport.
“Prayer is a good thing for any man who wants to live his life to the fullest, and I am sure it helps in the process of making men,” Stagg said.
Stagg was far from alone. Stories circulated in the 1920s about coaches leading teams in locker-room and on-field petitions at Notre Dame, Minnesota, Army, Centre College, Wiley College, and many other schools.
The image of the praying coach really became prominent in American culture after World War II. The Cold War brought on a new wave of religious nationalism aimed at combating the atheistic Communism of the Soviet Union. For many Americans, religious identity and national identity were fused. And the football coach was a prime example of what that combination of Christianity and Americanism was supposed to look like: a strong, tough maker of men, taking a humble knee before God.
In 1953, Michigan State’s Clarence “Biggie” Munn told Guideposts magazine why he led his team in prayer before and after games: He wanted to teach his players “the importance of love of country, faith in its institutions and the religious base on which it all rests.”
Munn was joined by coaches like Bud Wilkinson (Oklahoma), Paul Dietzel (Louisiana State), and Jake Gaither (Florida A&M) in his advocacy for prayer on the college football field. These men found community and a shared sense of purpose through the creation of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1954, an organization that proved to be especially popular among football coaches.
By 1957, prayer in college and high school sports was so common that when the Fellowship of Christian Athletes published a pamphlet on prayer in sports, they described it as “normal procedure.” The question was not if coaches and athletes should pray, but rather how.
Then, in 1962, the Supreme Court stepped in. With Engel v. Vitale, the court declared that a prayer written by New York state school officials for use in the state’s public high schools violated the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion. The decision put the brakes on the flurry of religious rituals infusing public life in the 1950s, but it also left many questions unanswered, including the question of prayer by a public-school football coach.
With football a central part of educational life, and prayer a central part of football, the stage was set for conflict.
Football prayers and constitutional challenges
The reverberations from Engel reached American football fields in the 1980s. One of the earliest examples came in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, when the parents of a high school player filed a complaint over the prayers of coach Emory Hale.
The school asked William Leech, Tennessee’s attorney general, to review the complaint and issue an opinion. In a letter to the school, Leech determined that it was indeed unconstitutional for coaches at public high schools to lead their team in prayer.
Although Leech’s opinion was non-binding, it set off a firestorm of controversy. Both Leech and the parent who issued the complaint received threats and harassment, and football coaches reacted with defiance. When Hale brought his team to the Class AAA state championship game a few weeks later, he ignored Leech’s directive, leading his players in prayer both before the game and at midfield following their victory.
“It’s very important to me to yield to authority above me, yet God comes first in my life,” he explained to the Los Angeles Times. “I know I’m kind of going to be in a bind over this.”
The following year, however, the Oak Ridge superintendent sided with Leech, directing his coaches to stop leading team prayers and instead to allow moments of silence, where student-athletes could pray if they desired.
The incident in Tennessee provided a template for additional cases over praying football coaches in the years ahead. In York, Nebraska (1982); Miami, Florida (1984); La Crosse, Wisconsin (1987); and numerous other communities—as well as high-profile college programs like the University of Colorado—a complaint would lead to public outcry and debate.
Defenders of the coach-led prayers often made their case on the grounds of tradition and community consensus, viewing the prayers as an expression of America’s religious identity. If America really was one nation “under God,” they argued, why couldn’t coaches lead a prayer?
Opponents, meanwhile, argued that the prayers favored conservative Christian perspectives. The rights of religious minorities—including students and parents who did not want their children’s faith to be influenced by school officials—needed to be protected.
Faced with the threat of litigation, school authorities generally advised coaches against the practice. “The problem is about 99 percent of the community favors the team prayer,” the school board president told the local newspaper in York, Nebraska, in 1982. “But we have to recognize the rights of the minority.”
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court weighed in on a couple of cases that helped set the boundaries for prayer at football games. In 1989 it let stand a lower-court ruling that said pregame invocations before a public high school’s football games were unconstitutional. The case had originated in Douglas County, Georgia, where prayers were read over a public address system. In 2000, the Supreme Court went further in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, deciding that student-led prayers over the public address system were unconstitutional as well.
From defense to offense
Despite these boundaries and limitations, football coaches at high schools across the country continued to lead their teams in prayer.
One of those coaches was Marcus Borden of East Brunswick High School in New Jersey. In 2005 school officials ordered Borden to stop praying with his team before games. Borden challenged the directive in court, arguing that the district violated his constitutional rights. Although Borden ultimately lost the case—in 2009, the Supreme Court declined to review—his efforts revealed a shift in strategy.
Previous cases had been framed as a matter of protecting the rights of the minority from the rights of the majority, with football coaches standing as representatives of the majority and the state. Borden, however, shifted from defense to offense, claiming that the central issue was his own constitutional right to religious expression.
Borden’s strategy, which Joseph Kennedy has adopted, did not emerge out of the blue. Instead, it was influenced by the efforts of the Christian conservative legal movement.
Legal interest groups in this movement, including Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel, and First Liberty Institute (the group behind Kennedy), have spent several decades refining their strategies and expanding their reach in the American legal system. These efforts have been successful, as evidenced by their involvement in some of the most important cases involving religion of the past 30 years.
While these groups file cases on myriad issues aligned with culture war battles, at the heart of the movement’s litigation is religious freedom. Kennedy’s claims certainly fit the bill, and with some creative liberties, his story could become a plot line in the next God’s Not Dead film: a faithful coach wanting to inspire and encourage athletes through on-field prayer, only to be stymied by hostile activists and an unfriendly government.
Recognizing that Kennedy is a sympathetic client for its mission to expand the scope of religious freedom protections in an increasingly post-Christian America, First Liberty has highlighted Kennedy’s story in various media productions, a common tactic aimed at shaping public opinion as well as legal outcomes. In these depictions Kennedy is not just a coach; he is a mentor called to shape the character of young men under his tutelage.
It is also important that Kennedy is a coach in the Pacific Northwest, a place where Christianity’s public influence is far more limited than in the South or the Midwest. It is more believable for a conservative Christian coach near Seattle to argue that his religious liberty needs to be protected than one in Texas.
While the Christian legal movement has steadily become more sophisticated over the past three decades, these developments would mean little if not for a sympathetic Supreme Court. And the justices seem poised to side with Kennedy given how the conservative majority has decided recent cases involving public displays of religion, including a 2019 case—won by First Liberty—permitting a memorial cross to remain on public property.
The key question may be how far the justices go. Kennedy’s prayers occurred after the game had ended, with players voluntarily choosing to join him. And Kennedy was an assistant coach. Will the Supreme Court’s decision also apply to a head coach leading his entire team in prayer before a game, or will it more narrowly apply to Kennedy’s specific context?
As the Supreme Court considers arguments over the praying football coach, faithful Christians may arrive at different conclusions about the wisdom of public prayers like Kennedy’s.
On the one hand, some Christians will see value in praying openly and confidently in secular spaces. Jesus’ exhortation in Matthew 5:15–16 to display one’s lamp “on its stand” may be inspiration to shine the light of Christ in otherwise dark spaces. In this context, Kennedy’s prayer habits are fully in line with the Christian calling to share the Good News with a fallen world.
On the other hand, some Christians will find Kennedy’s approach to public prayer problematic. In Matthew 6:5, Jesus rebukes the practice of prayer for the sake of garnering attention, calling those who do so “hypocrites” who love “to be seen by others.” Jesus calls people instead to pray “in secret.” In this context, Kennedy’s public prayers might be seen as an attention-getting scheme distracting from the point of prayer, which is to seek and petition God.
Should the Supreme Court side with Kennedy, football coaches at public schools will have more legal freedom to pray with their teams, reversing trends since the 1980s that have tended to place limits on the practice. Theoretically, this would apply to coaches of all faiths. But with Christianity’s prominence within the world of football, it is Christian coaches who would benefit the most.
This means that no matter what the court decides, the question of how Christian coaches should faithfully and responsibly steward their position of influence in a pluralistic society will remain a matter of debate.
Paul Putz is a historian who specializes in sports and Christianity, and serves as assistant director of the Faith & Sports Institute at Baylor’s Truett Seminary.
Daniel Bennett is associate professor of political science at John Brown University, where he is assistant director of the Center for Faith and Flourishing.
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