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Supreme Court’s on-field prayer ruling worries Bay Area prep football coach: ‘I think it’s so dangerous’

Religion and football are often positioned together in American culture, from a scoring player pointing to the sky to a postgame prayer circle at midfield. A Supreme Court ruling this week doubled down on allowing that connection to persist in secular public high schools through the authority figure of a coach.

By a 6-3 vote split along ideological lines, the Supreme Court on Monday said a public school district violated the rights of Joseph Kennedy, a part-time assistant football coach in Bremerton, Washington — a city just west of Seattle — when it suspended him in 2015 for refusing to stop praying with players on the field after games.

The tie between the gridiron and the Good Book may not be as strong on the West Coast as it is in the Deep South or even the Midwest, where Touchdown Jesus is synonymous with Notre Dame football. So what does the ruling mean for high school football in California? Administrators are still working through the implications, but at least one Bay Area coach sees it as a startling reversal.

Steve Sell, longtime athletic director and football coach at Aragon High School in San Mateo, was troubled that athletes competing for playing time might feel pressured to pray alongside a coach to help stay in that person’s good graces.

“I might be in the minority, but I think it’s so dangerous,” Sell said. “The coach controls playing time, controls what plays are called.

“You look at the Bay Area, you have a multitude of religions, a multitude of backgrounds. A coach, even with the best of intentions, might say, ‘listen, we want to pray, we want to do this prayer.’ A player of a different faith or no faith, who is in a battle for playing time or a starting position is really going to think twice about whether or not he or she should say, ‘Coach, I really don’t want to take part in the team prayer.’

“It’s an imbalance, I just think it’s not good.”

That scenario was outlined in the dissenting opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who noted that some players at Kennedy’s school felt social pressure to pray with him. But Justice Neil Gorsuch’s majority ruling emphasized “mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

The CIF is still reviewing the decision to “determine the impact on our events if any,” a spokesperson wrote in a Wednesday email. Central Coast Section commissioner Dave Grissom said there’s been zero conversation about it within his office and he does not see it as an issue for the section.

Asked about the high court’s decision, a spokesperson for the Oakland Unified School District wrote in an email, “We are indeed following this topic and are concerned about the ruling. We wouldn’t want any of our students to feel pressured to participate in religious practices.”

Serra head football coach Patrick Walsh supports the Court’s ruling while acknowledging that his upbringing and career in Catholic schools color his thinking on the matter. As the coach at a private school, he never had to change his practice of praying before and after games.

“I think a kid should have a choice to pray and not pray, and I think a coach should have a choice to pray and not pray,” he said, noting that some of his players have missed practices or games in support of religions other than Christianity, too.

Kevin Macy, a longtime East Bay football coach who started at Campolindo High in Moraga in 1996, said his teams have competed against Christian schools in the past where his players were invited to participate in postgame prayers.

Macy said when Campolindo played Bakersfield Christian in the Division 4-AA state championship football game in 2016, students from the private school asked his players if they wanted to join them in prayer.

“We haven’t been in a situation where adults have led these things,” Macy said. “The kids have invited the kids. It’s always been a respectful thing.”

Macy said he hopes this doesn’t become a battle at schools in the area.

“I would hope that it would not be a super major concern,” Macy said. “Because I don’t see that there’s going to be some big major shift all of a sudden, where public schools start doing prayers. I don’t really see that.”

Grissom, the CCS commissioner, said, “For the section, it’s a non-issue. We would not start a game with a prayer at a playoff game but if the coach knelt with or without the team, we don’t have any rule for or against that.”

Previously, Sell, in his role as AD, said he would hold meetings with coaches to go over guidelines, which stated that coaches could not be part of team prayers because if a coach was present, there would be an implied requirement to participate.

Sell was hopeful that the San Mateo Union High School district would take a “strong stand on it,” saying that it’s important for educators not to put students in an uncomfortable spot.

“And that’s what it comes down to,” he said, “you don’t want to put kids in that position.”

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