Bremerton High School SCOTUS Case
Dr. Irvin Scott
Faith and football have gone together in my family for generations.
My high school junior high school football team wasn’t the best team in Pennsylvania, but I still cherish a photo of me, pointing to the sky after scoring the only touchdown in a game against rival Steelton-Highspire, a perennial powerhouse. My son, Nick, who played defense on the 2022 Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Rams, routinely finds space to pray before every game, along with many other players – on both teams. Now, as a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where I founded the Leadership Institute for Faith and Education, I have come to realize that so many educators – no matter whether they’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or otherwise – spend their days the same way: grounded deeply in their faith, while performing on gridiron of life.
Despite that relationship, it may come as a surprise where I stand on the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District case currently in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The case pits a high-school football coach who regularly prayed at the 50-yard-line against the Washington school district that declined to renew his contract. While I am convinced of the role of prayer in providing comfort in all aspects of life, including on the field, I am equally convinced that it shouldn’t happen in public schools in a way that feels coerced or required.
For the last three decades, I have held a variety of roles in the education sector: first as a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent and, more recently, as a philanthropist and college professor. I have seen compelling evidence that strengthening the connection between faith-based organizations and schools can hold the key to improving outcomes for our most vulnerable. Many of the more than 300,000 religious congregations in America already play important roles in reinforcing what happens in schools. In addition to serving as community anchors, they hold book drives, offer tutoring, and teach lessons on weekends and after school. The roles of the faith communities have even grown in response to the challenges of COVID, with many of them stepping in to ensure wifi-access and acting as an intermediary between hard-to-reach students and schools. But that’s only the beginning of what they could do with tighter and more strategic collaboration.
I’ve seen it firsthand. As a principal in Lancaster, Penn., I partnered with the East Chestnut Mennonite Church in ways that supported the academic mission of the school while helping the church live out its mission to serve the immediate community. As the chief academic officer at Boston Public Schools, we addressed an out-of-control dropout crisis. We were able to address that challenge by reaching out the Boston Faith community through the Re-Engagement Center.
The vast majority of Americans report that religion is “very” or “somewhat important” in their lives. This is especially true for people of color. Meanwhile, Black and Latino students struggle when it comes to many positive academic and social-emotional indicators and outperform on most negative ones. I have grown convinced that leveraging the strong faiths of these communities will improve academic outcomes for the young people who live in them – just not the way Bremerton High School Assistant Coach Joseph Kennedy did.
When Kennedy initially joined the coaching staff, he’d pray alone after games. Over time, many players began to join him. One parent complained that his son, a player on the team, “felt compelled to participate,” even though he was an atheist, because he feared he’d lose playing time if he didn’t. The school’s athletic director tried to redirect the coach, but he persisted in holding public prayer sessions until he was placed on administrative leave.
If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Kennedy, it will hurt efforts to bring together houses of worship and schools for deliberate collaboration to improve student outcomes. Privileging the practice of one faith over others interferes with students’ freedoms and crosses an important line of scrimmage; instead, educators must respect differences, model acceptance, and appreciate how others find strength and comfort.
I have never been to Bremerton, Wash., but the ubiquitous Google tells us that within just a few blocks of the high school are Christian congregations that identify as Baptist, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, and nondenominational. There’s also a synagogue, Congregation Beth Hatikvah, and a masjid, the Islamic Center of Kitsap County. In other words, like so many communities in this country, Bremerton is fortunate to be surrounded by faith.
I would suspect that each of those congregations, despite different sacred texts and traditions, wants Bremerton to grow young people of strong academic prowess and character. Each of those congregations wants its children to succeed. Great possibility would be realized if those congregations worked together with their schools – not to preach the gospel of any specific text or to force others into a specific set of beliefs, but instead to align around a shared vision for a prosperous and united future.