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  • John Lantos

Making football safe for prayer


There are some serious theological questions here. What sort of God would desire prayers offered on the fifty yard line immediately after a football game? What sort of judge would consider such prayers to be personal and private?


The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton case reads like a parody of religion rather than an effort to get the facts straight and interpret the Constitution. The decision is a better bellwether of this court’s chutzpah than their recent decision about abortion. The abortion decision, after all, was the culmination of a very public fifty-year struggle to overturn Roe v. Wade. The football prayer decision was more subtle.


Both decisions suggest new ways of thinking about what privacy means. If a prayer circle on the fifty yard line after a game can be considered private and personal, and a decision about abortion subject to state prohibition, then any common-sense idea of what privacy means is obsolete.


It will now be up to the court in the inevitable future cases to redefine the boundary between church and state and the relationship between state and citizen.


Thanks to recent Supreme Court, decisions more citizens will die. There will be more preventable deaths from toxic emissions, guns on the streets, and unwanted pregnancies. As consolation, it will now be safer to offer public prayers after such deaths.


The majority opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton repeatedly insists that Coach Kennedy’s prayers were private and personal. The overwhelming evidence, amassed by the lower courts and documented in the dissenting opinion, shows that the coach’s prayers were very public, communal, and were specifically and explicitly designed to be so. After these decisions, there can be no coherent idea of what privacy means.


Prayer is common in medical settings. Illness calls people back to religion. Raymond Carver wrote about a mother whose son slipped into a coma after being hit by a car. She had not been religious but, in the face of this family tragedy, she feels an urgent need to pray. She tells her husband, “I’ve been praying. I almost thought I’d forgotten how but it came back to me. All I had to do was close my eyes and say, ‘Please God, help us – help Scotty,’ and the rest was easy. The words were right there.”

Sometimes patients ask their doctors to join them in prayer.


We were recently caring for a child who needed an urgent abdominal operation. Family members were huddled at the bedside with tearful and frightened faces. As they prepared to wheel the baby to the OR, the Father asked everyone to join him in a prayer. The doctors and nurses were surprised but quickly join hands in a prayer circle. The Dad prayed, “Father, I love my son and pray that you watch over him and protect him. I know that You are with him. I pray for the staff. Please bless their life here in the hospital and at home. Amen.”


The surgical team then wheeled the baby out of the PICU. Everybody was crying. They knew they might not see the baby alive again.


This prayer felt right.

It would have felt very different, however, if the roles were reversed and the surgeon asked the family to join him in prayer. It would have felt different because the parents would not have felt free to say no. No parents would risk offending their child’s surgeon as he was heading off to the operating room. The same is true when a football coach prays on the field after a game.

Prayer is both personal and communal. Private prayer has one set of meanings, public prayer another very different set. If prayer is important, then the right not to pray is just as important. Patients should not be coerced into praying with their doctors. Students should not be coerced in praying with their teachers or coaches. Calling such prayers “personal and private” does not make them so.

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