The praying Bremerton, Wash., coach won a great victory in the U.S. Supreme Court this week. But to get that win, he lost his way.
The high court ruled Monday that former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joseph Kennedy was entitled to offer a "short, private, personal prayer" on the field after games and that the school district had discriminated against him when it tried to restrict him.
This ruling sounds reasonable, as who is against short, private, personal prayer? The problem is that the only part of the phrase "short, private, personal prayer" that is accurate to what was going on in Bremerton in the fall of 2015 is "prayer."
We know this because it all played out here. One piece of evidence in the court record was a Seattle Times article from Oct. 15, 2015.
It was an account of a news conference Kennedy gave before the team's big homecoming game against Centralia. "Football coach vows to pray" was the print headline. It describes — in Kennedy's own words — how he was inspired to start holding midfield prayers with students after he saw an evangelical Christian movie called "Facing the Giants," in which a losing team finds God and goes on to win the state championship.
Kennedy "has held his postgame ritual at midfield after each game for a motivational talk and prayer ever since," the story recounted. By doing so, Kennedy said he is "helping these kids be better people."
But school employees simply cannot lead prayers with students to try to make them better people, no matter how well-intended the effort. In private school, OK, but not in a public school where the students may be Jewish, Muslim, atheist or who knows. It's not a close call that this breaks through the wall separating church and state, and it's why the school district asked him to stop.
So to get around this problem, Kennedy, his lawyers and, ultimately, six U.S. Supreme Court justices made up an alternate storyline.
In this new telling, students were nowhere around and had nothing to do with Kennedy's praying. He was a lone and silent sentinel, joined only by his convictions. As Justice Neil Gorsuch preposterously wrote, "He offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied."
"This is just me thanking God for 15 seconds after a football game," Kennedy told the Seattle Times on Monday, after the ruling.
That may have been true at times, but Kennedy himself announced at that news conference in 2015 that it was much more than that. He not only prayed with students, but was doing it to help the kids. That was two days before the game that became the central event of the Supreme Court case.
Here's how a former player at Bremerton High School described that homecoming game in a brief to the court:
"To this day, I don't remember who we played or if we even won. ... All I remember is the aftermath of that game" in which there were "over 500 people storm(ing) the football field ... from both sides, hopping the fences and rushing to the field to be close to Kennedy before he started his prayer."
The short, private, personal prayer.
There's more — the lawyers and Kennedy keep saying he was "fired for praying," though he was not fired; he never applied for the next season. It all caused a judge in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Milan Smith, to call out the whole case last year as built on a "deceitful narrative."
"The facts in the record utterly belie [Kennedy's] contention that the prayer was personal and private," Smith wrote. Smith, a George W. Bush appointee, later dubbed what the coach was doing as " 'everybody watch me pray' staged public prayers (that spawned this multi-year litigation)."
"I hope as this case proceeds that the truth of what actually happened will prevail," Smith wrote.
It did not. The myth-making story of a persecuted lone believer is what prevailed.
Why does any of this matter now?
Well, you'd hope facts matter to the U.S. Supreme Court. This particular court of "originalists" is increasingly looking to historical tradition, back to the days of the Founding Fathers when the Constitution was written, to determine modern-day rights. That's what they did in the recent gun case, and the abortion case that threw out Roe v. Wade.
If they're going to parse 250-year-old histories, it's worrisome how much trouble they had getting a seven-year-old story straight.
This seems by design. Myth is more potent than fact. The dissenting judges noted that this case was not even about public employees being allowed to give short, private prayers. Instead, some precedents that have long formed the backstop for the separation of church and state were tossed aside in making this ruling.
So the case used a gauzy history to achieve a concrete goal — to try to push Christianity into the public schools. Not in an educational role but a proselytizing one.
The coach, for his part, now says he just wants his 15 seconds.
The dishonesty at the heart of this case though suggests the movement that brought it — and the justices that bought it — are hardly going to be content to stop at that.
Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.