When I heard that Sports Illustrated (SI) did a story on Coach Joe Kennedy, my first thought was, “Why?” As faithful readers of The Daily Citizen know, the coach is the subject of a major freedom of religion case at the U.S. Supreme Court, which could hand down its decision any day. But that case is not about football or any other sport that SI covers.

The case involves the constitutional question of whether a public-school coach can lose his job for kneeling and praying quietly at the 50-yard line after a football game.

The coach’s story took place on a football field, but it wasn’t about the game itself. So why on earth would SI cover a legal case involving prayer?

Perhaps the title of the SI article gives it away: “When Faith and Football Teamed Up Against American Democracy.”

I’m scratching my head wondering: When was the last SI story on democracy?

The author of the piece, Greg Bishop, framed his story from the perspective of the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the rabidly anti-religious organization representing Bremerton High School, where Kennedy had coached football for eight seasons until his on-field prayers turned into a controversy in 2015.

Rachel Laser is the President and CEO of Americans United, as well as the lead lawyer for the school district, which justified its ill-treatment of Kennedy by citing the “separation of church and state,” a well-worn phrase used by leftists which, although appearing a couple times in Supreme Court decisions over the last couple centuries, does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, including the First Amendment.

According to Laser and liberal law professors such as Laurence Tribe from Harvard Law School, all quoted at length in SI’s piece, two things are likely to happen when the Supreme Court hands down its decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

First, Kennedy is likely to win by a 6-3 vote, and second, that would be a very bad thing for democracy.

Laser is quoted as calling those who believe in Kennedy’s right to pray in this case, “white Christian nationalists,” who “distort the facts.” And, Bishop notes, he consulted several legal scholars who agreed with that assessment.

Bishop then goes on to insinuate that American Christians are anti-Muslim and anti-immigration, intentionally using misdirection about religious freedom to falsely claim they have lost rights they are trying to win back. And they are backed, according to Laser and Bishop’s “scholars,” by “a billion-dollar industry that brands its argument not under ‘Christian nationalism’ but the more palatable ‘religious freedom.’”

The author doesn’t explain what “billion-dollar industry” he is referring to.

Bishop apparently talked to one atheist professor who actually backs Kennedy, which is an ironic but powerful endorsement of his case all by itself. But where are the renowned First Amendment scholars on freedom of religion, such as Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford University, Professor Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard Law School, or Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law?

Somehow, none of the nation’s actual leading scholars on religious liberty made it into the article to counter the “anonymous” liberals (other than Tribe) Bishop consulted who requested their names not be used because they feared retribution from mean conservatives.

The SI piece is not all bad, though. At times it is very readable, especially when it drills into the factual and personal story of Kennedy’s life journey from troubled youth to an 18-year career in the Marines to his radical conversion to Christianity.

But the piece jarringly swerves back and forth to the legal aspects of the case, where the author reveals his bias by using “scare quotes” in describing religious freedom or when he criticizes Kennedy’s lawyers at First Liberty Institute, who represent the coach for free, as having an agenda to “tell and sell” Kennedy’s story.

First Liberty, much like its counterpart at Americans United, is a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charity that is able to support its legal work by asking for donations, which it does in part by publicizing the cases it handles.

Bishop’s “scholars” seem to agree on an upcoming “win” for Kennedy at the Supreme Court, but they attribute it to conservative “court packing,” not because of some reasonable and historical interpretation of the First Amendment.

The author’s liberal views become even more clear near the end of the article: “If/when SCOTUS rules for him, it will add steam to a movement that threatens to force religious views—no matter how unpopular or ethically dubious—and alter the lives of those who don’t practice that specific faith.”

Even SI’s tweet advertising the Kennedy story leaves no doubt where the sports magazine stands: “SCOTUS will soon rule on the case of a public school football coach who wants to pray on-field after games. @GregBishopSI on Joe Kennedy, the machine backing him and the expected result: a win for Kennedy and an erosion of a bedrock of American democracy.”

Conservative author and commentator Mollie Hemingway sarcastically clapped back at SI on Twitter: “‘Freedom of religion is both the thing on which the country is founded upon and a threat to democracy’ is sure a take.”

U.S. Senator James Lankford, R-Okla., tweeted this response to SI: “Actually the Court affirming Coach Kennedy’s right to live his faith upholds the bedrock of our democracy – it doesn’t erode it.”

And a U.S. Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, Rep. Yvette Herrell, tweeted: “Sports Illustrated seems to be under the impression that coaches and players praying on the field spells the end of American democracy. If that were true, American democracy would have been destroyed long before the legendary Jim Thorpe threw his first pigskin.”

It’s odd that sports news outlets like Sports Illustrated, and ESPN before it, seem to prefer to discuss politics than sports these days, but such is the left’s influence on the culture that no one in sports media seems to be able to stay in their lane.

If and when Coach Kennedy’s religious freedom is vindicated at the nation’s highest court, it will be due not to “Christian nationalism” or some other nonsense, but rather to the work of eminently qualified jurists – utilizing an originalist judicial philosophy – giving their best take on the Constitution and the First Amendment.

And “democracy” can only benefit from that.


Photo from First Liberty Institute.