We are having a lively and important debate in our country regarding how the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment should be applied when it comes to public education and the freedom of teachers, coaches, leaders, and students to live out their faith. Now this conversation has focused locally on Bremerton football coach Joe Kennedy’s practice of saying a prayer after football games. Everywhere I go people are passionately debating the issue and many Christians are coming to the aid of the coach. I don’t wish to enter specifics of the debate about how the Establishment Clause is applied as many are doing a fine job of it, although I certainly have my strong opinions. Rather, I want to express a deep pastoral concern about how well-meaning Christians are engaging our specific local situation.
First, many are quick to assume the Bremerton School District “came after” Coach Kennedy. I simply have to ask if you know this is true. The best I’ve been able to discern is that this whole upheaval started from a Facebook post which stated the coach’s job was threatened. Did any official of the Bremerton School District initially “threaten” his job? Before we villainize Bremerton School District officials, it is important to have the facts straight. I’d hate to find out that this all got started by hearsay. Of course, now that a spot light is on the coach, district officials have to deal with whether the coach is violating the District’s policy, and that has led to a ruling that his actions are not in compliance. I know many disagree with this decision. However, wouldn’t it be a shame if this all got started by, “He said, she said?”
This leads me to my second concern. The policy in question was put in place by the Bremerton School Board. The Board consists of people that the citizens of the Bremerton School District elected! It is the job of the BSD officials and leaders to abide by those policies. Why are Christians villainizing the BSD? I’m confident the Bremerton School Board created this policy on the basis of how the courts have ruled on this subject to both protect our kids from proselytizing while also trying to respect people’s religious freedom. Yet, as I observe the debate, some concerned Christians are coming at the BSD as the evil persecutor of religious liberty. I simply have to ask if this is really the case. I personally do not believe it is. If you don’t like where our country is at on this issue, try and elect a President, Governors, and legislators who will appoint and approve different kinds of judges. Take your concerns to the voting booth or to the Board meeting. Seems to me that the old adage, “Don’t shoot the messenger” applies here when it comes to BSD officials and this brings me to my final and most important point.
I believe a Christian’s greatest witness in debating important societal issues isn’t just the specific stand we take, but how we take it. Are you upset about the restrictions placed on religious people? Great, I wrestle with how the establishment clause is being applied today too. However, our strength of conviction must be accompanied by kindness. Proverbs 15.1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Paul says in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to “speak the truth in love.” Defending Coach Kennedy’s practice of praying after a football game is one thing, but one must do it with love and kindness considering the effect of our actions on all involved. I’m going to venture a guess that the leaders of BSD are run ragged at this point. I’m betting the relationship between the public and BSD has been injured by this situation—something a small district that depends on local funding can ill afford – and which inevitably hurts the kids. I’m betting BSD has been beleaguered by many upset Christians and others from all different sides. Wouldn’t it be great if all the people answering complaint calls at the BSD where totally in awe, not just at the amount of support for coach Kennedy, but with the grace and kindness with which that support was expressed? I’m calling on all Christians in particular, and their leaders, to express their concerns but do so with respect and grace. Finally, I believe we should try and put the actions of others in the kindest of lights, and that includes the leadership of BSD. Taking an adversarial approach to the BSD will not help the situation nor is it a good Christian witness. I know I’m praying for the leaders of the BSD and coach Kennedy who find themselves now in the cross-hairs of a very difficult situation.