By / Jun 27

On June 27, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal.” This is an important decision for religious expression, especially for teachers and coaches’ ability to privately express their religious belief while working for schools.

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court, with Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Barrett joining. Justice Kavanaugh also joined the majority opinion, except as to Part III–B. Justices Thomas and Alito filed concurring opinions. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer and Kagan joined.

What is this case about?

Coach Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, had a tradition of kneeling and quietly praying at the 50-yard line after football games. Kennedy was suspended by Bremerton High School, and later fired because of his private prayers. In fact, the “District Court found that the ‘sole reason’ for the District’s decision to suspend Mr. Kennedy was its perceived ‘risk of constitutional liability’ under the Establishment Clause for his ‘religious conduct’ after three games.” He filed a lawsuit against the school district, arguing that the school’s actions violated both the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. 

Our brief to the court stated that, “Coach Kennedy . . . acted after a game, without directing his speech or conduct toward any particular audience, without anyone in compulsory attendance, without his inviting anyone, and on an outdoor field open to the entire public (not just students and other school employees).” It goes on to state, “this was a private gathering of like-minded individuals, and that gathering was itself shielded by the First Amendment protections of religion, speech, and assembly.”

Kennedy was simply exercising his constitutional right to free exercise and free speech. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “protects religious exercises and the Free Speech Clause provides overlapping protection for expressive religious activities.” Both of these Constitutional protections were violated in this case.

The Lemon Test

In addition to ruling specifically for Coach Kennedy, the court in this decision also officially replaced the Lemon Test, a three-part test from a 1971 ruling that determined when a law was in violation of the Establishment Clause. As the opinion notes,“The Lemon approach called for an examination of a law’s purposes, effects, and potential for entanglement with religion. In time, that approach also came to involve estimations about whether a ‘reasonable observer’ would consider the government’s challenged action an ‘endorsement’ of religion.”

In recent years, the court has increasingly disfavored the Lemon Test. Justice Gorsuch states that due to “the apparent ‘shortcomings’ associated with Lemon’s ‘ambitiou[s],’ abstract, and ahistorical approach to the Establishment Clause—this Court long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot.” Further, “the Court has explained that these tests ‘invited chaos’ in lower courts, led to ‘differing results’ in materially identical cases, and created a ‘minefield’ for legislators.”

Despite the previous abandonment of this test, the court had not officially replaced Lemon with a new standard, leaving a void of confusion for lower courts and legislators. However, in this decision, the court provided needed clarity and ruled that “in place of Lemon and the endorsement test . . . the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’”

The Lemon Test restricted religious expression, and the justices rightly ended this  “ahistorical” standard.

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC was involved with briefs at the petition for certiorari stage and before the Supreme Court on the merits. The brief urged the high court to accept the case and reverse the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Kennedy’s act of praying—ultimately joined by some players—constituted a government establishment of religion.

In 2018, ERLC joined eight other groups in a brief that called for Supreme Court review and repudiation of the Ninth Circuit in the case, but the justices declined to grant the request at the time. The case returned to federal court and worked its way back through the judicial system. The brief the ERLC signed argued that, 

. . . the school should have allowed the exercise of the constitutional freedoms to speak, pray, and assemble. It cannot convert its improper halting of such practices into a legal virtue by resorting to the Establishment Clause, as that clause certainly did not proscribe the unassisted, privately initiated exercise of religion by Coach Kennedy.

The Establishment Clause does not require public schools to be policed as religion-free zones, and a reasonable, objective person understands that teachers can act in private capacities, even while on school grounds and even during school hours. When teachers do so, their freedoms are not to be curtailed, and they are not to be punished.

The ERLC will always protect religious freedom and religious expression, before the courts, Congress and the administration.

Why does this decision matter? 

This decision strengthens religious expression for teachers, coaches, and people living out their faith in the public square. As the majority opinion states, the Free Exercise clause “protects not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It does perhaps its most important work by protecting the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through “the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts.” As the court rightly acknowledged, the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech clause are not separate units, but rather appear in the same sentence of the same Amendment.” Our First Amendment rights travel together, and must be equally honored and protected.

As ERLC’s acting president, Brent Leatherwood said,

“As any Christian knows, our faith is deeply personal and rightly shapes every aspect of our lives. We live out our faith in any number of ways, both privately and publicly. Today’s case centered on the latter and the Supreme Court rightly determined that an individual employed by a school does not forfeit his or her constitutional right to free expression simply by entering ‘the schoolhouse gate’ or, as it were in this case, the field of play.

“Moreover, today’s decision reaffirms another aspect of constitutional law: Our First Amendment rights travel together. We, and many others, have long held that religious liberty is our nation’s first freedom and that it bolsters and strengthens other foundational rights. The Court today strengthened this perspective by writing that the clauses of free expression, establishment and free speech are all complementary. If it were not already clear enough, this Court views religious liberty as a bedrock right in our free republic.”

This case is another victory in a long line of jurisprudence that further expands Americans’ robust rights of religious expression. Across our convention of churches, faithful Southern Baptists can be found working in the public education sector. As Christians, Scripture calls us to do “all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). This decision bolsters believers’ ability to do this in the public square without fear of repercussions.

By / Jun 27

In an affirmation of religious expression, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in Kennedy v. Bremerton on June 27 that “the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal.” The court found that Coach Kennedy’s private prayers after football games were “private speech, not government speech,” and teachers and students need not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Justice Gorsuch wrote the opinion of the court joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, and Barrett. Kavanaugh also joined the majority opinion except for Part III-B. Justices Thomas and Alito wrote concurring opinions. Justice Sotomayor authored the dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan.

The ERLC applauds the court for continuing to strengthen our nation’s long legacy of religious expression. First Amendment protections travel together, and the court was wise to observe that Coach Kennedy’s personal expressions of religious devotion created “no conflict between the constitutional commands of the First Amendment.”

In the amicus brief the ERLC joined, we argued that “the Establishment Clause does not require public schools to be policed as religion-free zones.” We agree with the court that public employees retain the freedom to act in private capacities while on the job, and teachers and coaches should be able to practice their religious beliefs without fear of excessive state incursion.

Below are key quotes from the majority opinion, concurrence, and dissent, highlighting how the court reached its decision. Page numbers from the court’s decision are given for each quote, but legal citations are omitted for clarity of reading.

For more details on the religious liberty issues present in this case, see our explainer here. To keep up to date on all Supreme Court cases we are watching in 2022, visit


From the Syllabus 

“The District Court found that the ‘sole reason’ for the District’s decision to suspend Mr. Kennedy was its perceived ‘risk of constitutional liability’ under the Establishment Clause for his ‘religious conduct’ after three games.” (1)

“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.” (1) 

“The District, like the Ninth Circuit below, insists Mr. Kennedy’s rights to religious exercise and free speech must yield to the District’s interest in avoiding an Establishment Clause violation under Lemon and its progeny.” (4)

“But—given the apparent ‘shortcomings’ associated with Lemon’s ‘ambitiou[s],’ abstract, and ahistorical approach to the Establishment Clause—this Court long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot…In place of Lemon and the endorsement test, this Court has instructed that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’” (4)

“The District next attempts to justify its suppression of Mr. Kennedy’s religious activity by arguing that doing otherwise would coerce students to pray…The Ninth Circuit did not adopt this theory in proceedings below and evidence of coercion in this record is absent.” (5)

“Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.” (6)

Majority Opinion: Justice Gorsuch

“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor.” (1) 

“Under this Court’s precedents, a plaintiff may carry the burden of proving a free exercise violation in various ways, including by showing that a government entity has burdened his sincere religious practice pursuant to a policy that is not ‘neutral’ or ‘generally applicable.’” (12) 

“In this case, the District’s challenged policies were neither neutral nor generally applicable….Prohibiting a religious practice was thus the District’s unquestioned ‘object.’ The District candidly acknowledged as much below, conceding that its policies were ‘not neutral’ toward religion.” (14) 

“Of course, none of this means the speech rights of public school employees are so boundless that they may deliver any message to anyone anytime they wish…If a public employee speaks ‘pursuant to [his or her] official duties,’ this Court has said the Free Speech Clause generally will not shield the individual from an employer’s control and discipline because that kind of speech is—for constitutional purposes at least—the government’s own speech.” (15)

“At the other end of the spectrum, when an employee ‘speaks as a citizen addressing a matter of public concern,’ our cases indicate that the First Amendment may be implicated and courts should…attempt to engage in ‘a delicate balancing of the competing interests surrounding the speech and its consequences.’” (15)

“It seems clear to us that Mr. Kennedy has demonstrated that his speech was private speech, not government speech.” (17) 

“Others working for the District were free to engage briefly in personal speech and activity…That Mr. Kennedy chose to use the same time to pray does not transform his speech into government speech. To hold differently would be to treat religious expression as second-class speech.” (19)  

“It is true that this Court and others often refer to the ‘Establishment Clause,’ the ‘Free Exercise Clause,’ and the ‘Free Speech Clause’ as separate units. But the three Clauses appear in the same sentence of the same Amendment.” (20) 

“In Lemon this Court attempted a ‘grand unified theory’ for assessing Establishment Clause claims…that approach called for an examination of a law’s purposes, effects, and potential for entanglement with religion.”(22) 

“In place of Lemon and the endorsement test, this Court has instructed that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings. [T]he line’ that courts and governments ‘must draw between the permissible and the impermissible’ has to ‘accord with history and faithfully reflect the understanding of the Founding Fathers.’” (23)

“Now, [the school district] says, it was justified in suppressing Mr. Kennedy’s religious activity because otherwise it would have been guilty of coercing students to pray. And, the District says, coercing worship amounts to an Establishment Clause violation on anyone’s account of the Clause’s original meaning.” (24)

“To be sure, this Court has long held that government may not, consistent with a historically sensitive understanding of the Establishment Clause, ‘make a religious observance compulsory.’ But in this case Mr. Kennedy’s private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.” (24-25)

“In short, Mr. Kennedy did not seek to direct any prayers to students or require anyone else to participate.” (26)

“Naturally, Mr. Kennedy’s proposal to pray quietly by himself on the field would have meant some people would have seen his religious exercise. Those close at hand might have heard him too. But learning how to tolerate speech or prayer of all kinds is ‘part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society,’ a trait of character essential to ‘a tolerant citizenry.’” (26)

“Of course, some will take offense to certain forms of speech or prayer they are sure to encounter in a society where those activities enjoy such robust constitutional protection. But ‘offense… does not equate to coercion.’” (26-27)

“Here, the District suggests that any visible religious conduct by a teacher or coach should be deemed—without more and as a matter of law—impermissibly coercive on students…Such a rule would be a sure sign that our Establishment Clause jurisprudence had gone off the rails. In the name of protecting religious liberty, the District would have us suppress it. Rather than respect the First Amendment’s double protection for religious expression, it would have us preference secular activity. Not only could schools fire teachers for praying quietly over their lunch, for wearing a yarmulke to school, or for offering a midday prayer during a break before practice. Under the District’s rule, a school would be required to do so.” (28)

“We are aware of no historically sound understanding of the Establishment Clause that begins to ‘make it necessary for government to be hostile to religion’ in this way.” (29)

“In truth, there is no conflict between the constitutional commands before us. There is only the ‘mere shadow’ of a conflict, a false choice premised on a misconstruction of the Establishment Clause. And in no world may a government entity’s concerns about phantom constitutional violations justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.” (31)

“The only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.” (31-32)

Concurring Opinion: Justice Thomas

“I write separately to emphasize that the Court’s opinion does not resolve two issues related to Kennedy’s free-exercise claim.” (1)

“First, the Court refrains from deciding whether or how public employees’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause may or may not be different from those enjoyed by the general public.” (1)

“We have held that ‘the First Amendment protects public employee speech only when it falls within the core of First Amendment protection — speech on matters of public concern.’ It remains an open question, however, if a similar analysis can or should apply to free-exercise claims in light of the ‘history’ and ‘tradition’ of the Free Exercise Clause.” (1-2)

“Second, the Court also does not decide what burden a government employer must shoulder to justify restricting an employee’s religious expression because the District had no constitutional basis for reprimanding Kennedy under any possibly applicable standard of scrutiny…A government employer’s burden therefore might differ depending on which First Amendment guarantee a public employee invokes.” (2)

Concurring Opinion: Justice Alito

“Petitioner’s expression occurred while at work but during a time when a brief lull in his duties apparently gave him a few free moments to engage in private activities. When he engaged in this expression, he acted in a purely private capacity.” (1)

“The Court does not decide what standard applies to such expression under the Free Speech Clause but holds only that retaliation for this expression cannot be justified based on any of the standards discussed.” (1)

Dissenting Opinion: Justice Sotomayor

“This case is about whether a public school must permit a school official to kneel, bow his head, and say a prayer at the center of a school event. The Constitution does not authorize, let alone require, public schools to embrace this conduct.” (1)

“The Court now charts a different path, yet again paying almost exclusive attention to the Free Exercise Clause’s protection for individual religious exercise while giving short shrift to the Establishment Clause’s prohibition on state establishment of religion.” (1)

“The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field. Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location.” (1-2)

“Kennedy recounted that he initially prayed alone and that he never asked any student to join him. Over time, however, a majority of the team came to join him, with the numbers varying from game to game. Kennedy’s practice evolved into postgame talks in which Kennedy would hold aloft student helmets and deliver speeches with ‘overtly religious references,’ which Kennedy described as prayers, while the players kneeled around him.” (4)

“The District reiterated that ‘all District staff are free to engage in religious activity, including prayer, so long as it does not interfere with job responsibilities’…To avoid endorsing student religious exercise, the District instructed that such activity must be non-demonstrative or conducted separately from students, away from student activities.” (6)

“While Kennedy’s letter asserted that his prayers ‘occurr[ed] on his own time after his duties as a District employee had ceased,’ the District pointed out that Kennedy ‘remain[ed] on duty’ when his prayers occurred ‘immediately following completion of the football game, when students are still on the football field, in uniform, under the stadium lights, with the audience still in attendance, and while Mr. Kennedy is still in his District-issued and District-logoed attire.’ The District further noted that ‘[d]uring the time following completion of the game, until players are released to their parents or otherwise allowed to leave the event, Mr. Kennedy, like all coaches, is clearly on duty and paid to continue supervision of students.” (8)

“This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event, where that display is recognizable as part of a longstanding practice of the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched. A school district is not required to permit such conduct; in fact, the Establishment Clause prohibits it from doing so.” (13-14)

“Taken together, these two Clauses (the Religion Clauses) express the view, foundational to our constitutional system, ‘that religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the State.’” (14)

“First, government neutrality toward religion is particularly important in the public school context given the role public schools play in our society. ‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’” (15)

“The State ‘exerts great authority and coercive power’ in schools as a general matter ‘through mandatory attendance requirements.’ Moreover, the State exercises that great authority over children, who are uniquely susceptible to “subtle coercive pressure.” (15)

“Given the twin Establishment Clause concerns of endorsement and coercion, it is unsurprising that the Court has consistently held integrating prayer into public school activities to be unconstitutional, including when student participation is not a formal requirement or prayer is silent.” (16)

“Permitting a school coach to lead students and others he invited onto the field in prayer at a predictable time after each game could only be viewed as a post-game tradition occurring ‘with the approval of the school administration.’” (17)

“The District Court found, in the evidentiary record, that some students reported joining Kennedy’s prayer because they felt social pressure to follow their coach and teammates. Kennedy told the District that he began his prayers alone and that players followed each other over time until a majority of the team joined him, an evolution showing coercive pressure at work…That BHS students did not join Kennedy in these last three specific prayers did not make those events compliant with the Establishment Clause. The coercion to do so was evident.” (18-19)

“But existing precedents do not require coercion to be explicit, particularly when children are involved. To the contrary, this Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence establishes that ‘the government may no more use social pressure to enforce orthodoxy than it may use more direct means.’” (19)

“Constitutional rights, however, are not absolutes. Rights often conflict and balancing of interests is often required to protect the separate rights at issue (noting that ‘the presence of countervailing interests . . . is what makes a constitutional question hard, and what require[s] balancing).” (20)

“First, as to Kennedy’s free speech claim, Kennedy ‘accept[ed] certain limitations’ on his freedom of speech when he accepted government employment.” (20)

“The last three games proved that Kennedy did not intend to pray silently, but to thrust the District into incorporating a religious ceremony into its events, as he invited others to join his prayer and anticipated in his communications with the District that students would want to join as well.” (22)

“Finally, the Court acknowledges that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing people to engage in religion practice, but its analysis of coercion misconstrues both the record and this Court’s precedents.” (30)

“The Court’s suggestion that coercion must be ‘direc[t]’ to be cognizable under the Establishment Clause is contrary to long established precedent. The Court repeatedly has recognized that indirect coercion may raise serious establishment concerns, and that ‘there are heightened concerns with protecting freedom of conscience from subtle coercive pressure in the elementary and secondary public schools.’” (30)

“The question before the Court is not whether a coach taking a knee to pray on the field would constitute an Establishment Clause violation in any and all circumstances.It is whether permitting Kennedy to continue a demonstrative prayer practice at the center of the football field after years of inappropriately leading students in prayer in the same spot, at that same time, and in the same manner, which led students to feel compelled to join him, violates the Establishment Clause. It does.” (33)

“Today, the Court once again weakens the backstop. It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all.” (35)

By / Sep 18

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss the Abraham Accords Peace Agreement, life on Venus, Charles Stanley, hurricane Sally, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Big Ten college football. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including a piece by Travis Wussow with a “Q&A with the Prevention and Response Administrator at the IMB,” Jared Kennedy with “How we can confidently call kids to respond to the gospel,” and Daniel Rentie with “Why we should view our communities as mission fields: The opportunity to serve close to home.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Scott Foshie for a conversation about life and ministry.

ERLC Content


  1. Israel signs normalization deals with UAE and Bahrain at White House ceremony
  2. ‘Peace. Shalom. Salaam’
  3. Scientists find possible sign of life on Venus
  4. Churches report encouraging trends in giving amid pandemic
  5. Charles Stanley transitions to pastor emeritus at First Baptist Atlanta, Anthony George named senior pastor
  6. Salvation Army starts red kettle program early amid ‘tsunami of human need’
  7. Coronavirus cases increase in 17 states
  8. A vaccine won’t be available for everyone before the end of 2024, says CEO of world’s biggest producer
  9. Sally is leaving widespread flooding in parts of Alabama and Florida, and rescues are underway
  10. Louisville announces $12M settlement, police reforms in wake of Breonna Taylor shooting
  11. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade 2020 Will Not Be Live Event
  12. Big Ten Reverses Decision, Will Start Football Season In October


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By / Aug 25

Each August, we take a break from our usual policy focused conversations and host interviews with leaders we admire. This week, Jeff Pickering sits down with retired NFL player Benjamin Watson, who is now an author, activist, and documentary filmmaker. Watson is also a man of deep Christian faith and a faithful family man.

Guest Biography

Benjamin Watson and his wife, Kirsten, are the parents of seven children as well as the founders of One More, a foundation aiming to spread the love and hope of Christ by meeting real needs, promoting education, and supporting local charities. As a retired tight end, Watson is now an ESPN and NFL Network and a prolific media cultural commentator. Watson’s illustrious football career included being the 32nd overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, a Superbowl 39 champion his rookie season, a finalist for the Walter Payton Man of the Year award. Watson has also authored two books, Under Our Skin and The New Dad’s Playbook, and is the producer of a forthcoming documentary, titled, Divided Hearts of America.

Resources from the Conversation

By / Aug 14

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss 2020 election updates, a shooting outside of the White House, a derecho in the midwest, coronavirus in kids, the housing market, and college football plans for the fall. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including a piece by the ERLC Staff with an explainer on “How to make sure your kids are safe on the internet,” Jason Thacker with an explainer on “Elections in Belarus, an internet blackout, and human rights,” and Michael Natelli with “How churches can serve those facing eviction during the pandemic.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Matt Emerson for a conversation about life and ministry.

About Matt

Matt Emerson is a professor at Oklahoma Baptist University and a dean at Hobbs College. Matt earned a bachelor’s degree from Auburn University and an M.Div. and Ph.D. in from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Before joining the OBU faculty in 2015 he previously taught at California Baptist University. Matt has authored or co-authored over 20 publications. His research interests include the Old Testament’s use in the New Testament, early Christian interpretation, and theological method. He serves as co-Executive Director of the Center for Baptist Renewal, co-editor of the Journal of Baptist Studies, steering committee member of the Scripture and Hermeneutics Seminar, and Senior Fellow for the Center of Ancient Christian Studies. He is also a member of a number of scholarly societies, and blogs at Biblical Reasoning. Matt and his wife, Alicia married in 2006 and have five daughters. You can connect with him on Twitter: @M_Y_Emerson

ERLC Content


  1. The Biden-Harris ticket rollout
  2. Biden campaign raises $26 million in first 24 hours
  3. Trump whisked out of press briefing after shooting outside White House
  4. Midwest Derecho strikes in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana
  5. There has been a 90% increase in Covid-19 cases in US children in the last four weeks, report says
  6. The pandemic real estate market
  7. Nearly 150 Christians killed in sustained violence in Nigeria
  8. The Mid-American Conference has canceled its football season this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic
  9. The Big Ten and Pac-12 won’t play football this fall, but the Big 12 reportedly intends to
  10. Pandemic plunges U.K. into “largest recession on record”


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By / Jul 27

A question for my fellow football fans: How much brain damage would you be willing to endure to watch NFL games?

Would you watch the same amount of football if every game increased your chances contracting palsy, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease? If not, then you might want to consider why you are willing to allow others to take such risk for your entertainment.

A new study has found that 110 of 111 deceased former National Football League (NFL) players had evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or permanent brain damage as a result of repeated blunt force injuries to the head. More broadly, as Katherine Ellen Foley notes, the study found 177 of 202 deceased players who played at any level (including college and semi-professional) for an average 15 years (ranging from roughly 10 to 20 years) also had evidence of CTE.

A team of researchers led by Boston University and the Veteran’s Association in Boston conducted the study, which was published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

As Foley points out, there is a chance that the study is biased since it relied on the player’s bodies being donated by families who suspected there was a link between football and brain injury. Also, the establishment of a correlation between CTE and football players does not mean that playing football caused the brain damage.

Still, this is the latest in a growing body of evidence that the repeated blows to the head that many football players endure are causing long-term irreparable harm to their bodies. At what point should this be a concern for the Christian football fan?

Four years ago, in an article for Christianity Today, Owen Strachan argued that the physical harm caused by football should lead Christians to reconsider the game's violence:

Football, more than any other mainstream American sport, depends on violence—the cultivation of violent instincts, the use of violence in the moment, and the game yields positive reinforcement after successful acts of violence. Some training in violence is necessary—soldiers defending their country, for example. But the culture of football should concern Christians. The number of football-related arrests, assaults on women and tiny children, murders, drug charges, and more should not glance off the evangelical conscience. The physical brutality of the game likely factors in here. Many of the athletes who have gone off the rails and killed themselves and others suffered from CTE. This is not conjecture. It is fact. We kid ourselves if we don't acknowledge the deleterious effect of continuously traumatic contact.

At the time, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins wrote a reply to Strachan and other football critics here on the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission website, David E. Prince and Jimmy Scroggins in which they said, “Laziness and intentional underachievement, along with a safety-centric worldview are enemies to the advancement of the gospel.”

Football represents one of the only major American institutions still standing that is exclusively for males and speaks unashamedly about manliness and toughness. Boys are drawn to demanding physical competition against other boys, assertive male leadership, and a cause that demands sacrifice and calculated risk. These are good things that ought to be cultivated on a pathway from boyhood to Christian manhood.

Courage and calculated risk-taking are causalities of our contemporary safety-centric worldview. Sadly, evangelicals seem to be leading the movement to train bravery and adventure out of our children in favor of a cult of safety. Boys, who are virtually bubble wrapped by their parents to ride bikes in the front yard and do not participate in things like football because they might get hurt, will have a difficult time finding Paul remotely intelligible when he asserts, “For I am ready not only to be imprisoned but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:13).

Prince and Scroggins correctly note that “courage and calculated risk-taking” are necessary for the advancement of the gospel and that in many ways sports like football can help train men for such work. While we need to be careful about confusing biblical masculinity with a culturally conditioned, hyper-macho view of manhood, there is a definitely a need for the development and cultivation of physical stamina and courage. Football has often proven useful for just such training.

However, our bodies are not our own. As Paul reminds us, they were bought with a price. We are called to responsibly steward our bodies and glorify God with them, which is why we cannot dismiss the concerns about violence. As Strachan says, “If a game is associated with violence, that should be of note to believers. Following Christ means avoiding unnecessary violence, no matter what macho culture and John Wayne manhood might say (Luke 22:36).”

Reducing unnecessary violence in play and entertainment—and sports is ultimately a form of either play or entertainment—should be a reasonable compromise for those of us who love the game.

In the late 1890s and early 1900s, football was such a brutal sport that many players died due to the injuries they received on the field. Between 11 and 20 deaths resulted directly from a football injury during the 1905 season alone. As David Dayen notes, that would be the equivalent today of  95 on-field deaths. Public opinion was turning against the sport to such an extent that the New York Times op-ed on “Two Curable Evils,” listing football alongside lynching.

In an attempt to save the game, then-president Theodore Roosevelt stepped in by inviting the coaches of three biggest college programs—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House for a private meeting and encouraged them to make the game safer. In response to Roosevelt’s request, Harvard coach Bill Reid helped to organize the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In January 1906, representatives of 62 Colleges and Universities meet to appoint a rules committee for college football. In an attempt to “open” the game, the IAAUS made 19 changes, including doubling the yardage needed for a first down from five yards to 10; creating a neutral zone between the two sides of the line of scrimmage; requiring six men on the line; and establishing the forward pass.

If the original Rough Rider could propose changes to football that reduced its brutality—and made the sport better—we armchair quarterbacks should be able to support modifications that strike a balance between vicious violence and safety-centric softness.  

By / Dec 31

For almost a century, college football bowl games have been a New Year’s Day tradition in the United States. Here are five facts you should know about college football and bowl games:

1. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, football was such a brutal sport that many players died due to the injuries they received on the field. Between 11 and 20 deaths resulted directly from a football injury during the 1905 season alone. As David Dayen notes, that would be the equivalent today of he 95 on-field deaths. Public opinion was turning against the sport to such an extent that the New York Times an op-ed on “Two Curable Evils”, listing football alongside lynching.

2. In an attempt to save the game, then-president Theodore Roosevelt stepped in by inviting the coaches of three biggest college programs—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—to the White House for a private meeting and encouraged them to make the game safer. In response to Roosevelt’s request, Harvard coach Bill Reid helped to organize the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS), now known as the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). In January 1906, representatives of 62 Colleges and Universities meet to appoint a rules committee for college football. In an attempt to “open” the game, the IAAUS made 19 changes, including doubling the yardage needed for a first down from five yards to 10; creating a neutral zone between the two sides of the line of scrimmage; requiring six men on the line; and establishing the forward pass.

3. To draw attention to the Pasadena Tournament of Roses, members of the Valley Hunt Club decided in 1902 hosted a matchup between two of the best college football teams from the East and the West. The inaugural Tournament East-West football game between Michigan and Stanford was such a rout (Standford conceded defeat with 8 minutes left to play) that the event didn’t host another game until 1916. In 1923 it was moved to a new stadium in Pasadena called the Rose Bowl. That game, played on New Year’s Day, took on the name of its new home, and the “bowl game” was born.

4. In the 1930s, as Christopher Klein notes, “other warm-weather locations followed Pasadena’s lead and latched onto New Year’s Day college football games as a way to lure tourists—and their dollars—seeking a mid-winter break.” In 1933, Miami Gardens, Florida launched the Festival of Palms Bowl (which was later named the Orange Bowl), New Orleans launched the Sugar Bowl in 1935, and El Paso debuted the Sun Bowl in 1936. In 1937, Havana, Cuba sponsored the Bacardi Bowl and Dallas started the Cotton Bowl.

5. Because of the connections between individual colleges and bowl games, the NCAA did not initially hold a championship game. The AP college football poll, which began in 1936, became the unofficial designator of the “national champion.” Between 1992 and 2013, though, several playoff tournaments arose to choose a Division 1 winner. Since 2014, the national champion has been decided by the College Football Playoff National Championship game. The game serves as the final of the College Football Playoff, a bracket tournament between the top four teams in the country as determined by a selection committee, which rotates among six major bowl games (sometimes referred to as the 'New Year's Six'): Cotton, Fiesta, Peach, Orange, and Rose. 

By / Nov 25

The Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony weren't the first Europeans to settle in North America, nor were they the first permanent English colonists. But because of our annual celebration of Thanksgiving, and our hazy images of their 1621 meal with Native Americans, the Pilgrims have become the emblematic colonists in America's national memory. Although modern Thanksgiving has become largely non-religious—focused more on food, family, and football than explicitly thanking God—the Pilgrims' experience reveals a compelling religious aspect of our country's roots.

Although people often refer to the Pilgrims as "Puritans," they technically were English Separatists, Christians who had decided that the state-sponsored Anglican Church was fatally corrupt, and that they should found their own churches. (The Puritans, who would establish Massachusetts in 1630, believed in reforming the Anglican Church from within.) Establishing independent churches, however, was illegal. Under heavy persecution, some Separatists decided to move to Leiden in the Netherlands around the same time that the Virginia Company founded Jamestown in 1607.

The Netherlands offered the Separatists religious liberty, but the Pilgrims also became concerned about the negative influences of living in such a culturally diverse society. So in 1620, 102 settlers sailed to America on board the Mayflower. Their final Old World port was Plymouth, England, which supplied the name for their new settlement in what became southeastern Massachusetts.

All adult men on board the ship signed the "Mayflower Compact," which many consider the first written constitution in American history. It is a very brief document, but it powerfully articulated the colonists' commitment to God and government by common consent. It reads, in part:

"Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation."

Documents such as the Mayflower Compact leave little doubt that the New England colonies were founded primarily for religious purposes.

The Compact noted Plymouth's legal connection to Virginia (they shared the same charter), but their southern neighbors were less motivated by religion than were the New England colonists. Some today may exaggerate the secular nature of Virginia, however; among the first laws of that colony was a demand that the people honor God, to whom they owed their "highest and supreme duty, our greatest, and all our allegiance to him, from whom all power and authoritie is derived." The recent news that the foundations of the oldest Protestant church in America have been discovered at the site of the Jamestown fort also reminds us of the southern colonists' faith.

Although our records for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth are sparse, we do know that in 1621 the Pilgrims held a three-day celebration with allied Indians, in observation of a good harvest and in gratitude for God's help in passing through the trials of the first year of settlement (half of the settlers had died in that scourging winter). And yes, they had a "great store of wild turkeys" to eat for the festival.

The American colonies, particularly in New England, continued the tradition of holding thanksgiving days into the Revolutionary era, when the new American nation also picked up the practice. The Continental Congress and American presidents, beginning with George Washington, regularly proclaimed days of thanksgiving. In 1789, the first year of his presidency, Washington declared that the last Thursday of November would be a "day of public thanks-giving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God."

Thanksgiving became an annual holiday in America during the Civil War, and Congress made the fourth Thursday of November an official national holiday in December 1941, shortly after America's entry into World War II.

Thanksgiving historically was about "thanks-giving" directed to God. This is an instructive lesson, not only for better understanding our history, but also for curbing the temptation to make Thanksgiving into a holiday of over-consumption. The Pilgrims remind us that Thanksgiving is not all about turkey and touchdowns.

By / Dec 16

It has become fashionable among some to denounce football as barbaric and gladiatorial. Author Malcolm Gladwell has repeatedly called for colleges to drop their college football teams and has asserted that it is barbarism akin to dog fighting. Professor of law at Northeastern University, Roger I. Abrams, asks regarding football, “Should we accept this gladiatorial combat as our national pastime?” Such critics must be watching a different game than the one so many of us enjoy each weekend in the fall.  

A recognition of dignity

Baseball is my favorite sport, but football certainly holds a special place in my affections. I was raised in Alabama, the buckle of the SEC football belt. In the southeast, football has taken on a mythic quality. Football Saturdays are not just games; they are cultural events similar to a massive family reunion. The pageantry and rootedness of cheering for the local school you identify with is a contemporary reflection of southern agrarian rootedness. Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt contends that in the post-reconstruction era “football offered southern men a chance to assert their masculinity and the South’s physical supremacy short of actually taking up arms” (Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives).

Far from being an example of barbaric gladiatorial culture, I think the beautiful and awe-inspiring controlled aggression of football is an example of the value of humanity. Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, has written extensively on the reasons for the spread of Christianity. Stark explains, “Perhaps, above all else, Christianity brought a new conception of humanity to a world saturated with capricious cruelty and the vicarious love of death. . . . Finally, what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity. In this sense virtue was its own reward” (The Rise of Christianity).

In an interview with Touchstone magazine, Stark was asked to explain what he meant by his assertion that “what Christianity gave to its converts was nothing less than their humanity.” He responded by explaining Christianity’s influence in restoring humanity by condemning the bloodthirsty gladiatorial culture of the era:

If you look at the Roman world, you have to question whether half the people had any humanity. Going to the arena to enjoy watching people tortured and killed doesn’t strike me as healthy. I’m a big football fan, and I see that, when some player gets hurt, they bring out an ambulance and the doctors take twenty minutes to get him off the field. They don’t want people hurt out there. But these people did. They’d shout, “Shake him! Jump up and down on him!”

It was a new idea. Among the pagans, you get the sense that no one took care of anyone else except in the tribal way. It’s what we’re seeing today in the Balkans—you take care of your brothers, and you kill everybody else. Christianity told the Greco-Roman world that the definition of “brother” has got to be a lot broader. There are some things you owe to any living human being.

A rejection of gratuitous violence

Modern American football is not a contemporary expression of a gladiatorial culture thirsty for gratuitous violence—it is the repudiation of it. Football is a potentially violent sport, but the point of football is not violence or injury of the opponent. As Herm Edwards has said, “You play to win the game.” Football games are won with power and finesse. It is a physically demanding game that will certainly result in occasional injuries, some of which will be serious, but over the years football has been willing to reform in countless ways that have made it safer while not destroying the essence of the manly game. Football also penalizes those who corrupt the game by intentionally attempting to injure an opponent.

As a former high school football coach, I witnessed players injured on the field and have consistently seen players on the opposing team show concern and even gather and pray for the injured athlete. Now as a father watching my own son play high school football, I have observed the same recognition of humanity on the football field. I have been in Bryant-Denny stadium with 90,000 rabid Alabama football fans and have heard the frenzied crowd fall immediately silent when a player was on the field injured. Comparing modern American football to barbaric gladiatorial culture is misguided at best and outright deceitful at worst.  

A noble game

Amos Alonzo Stagg was one of the greatest coaches in the history of college football and a devoted Christian who was initially headed for the pastorate. He coached football at a time when the game was far more brutal than today’s version of the game. Stagg said, “To me, the coaching profession is one of the noblest and most far-reaching in building manhood . . . Winning isn’t worthwhile unless one has something finer and nobler behind it.” Collin Hansen writes that Stagg placed “athletics within the eternal narrative of Christ and his church” and that he had a “vision for football's ability to impart virtue to its participants.” Hansen explains, “Stagg saw in every missed field goal a test of faith, in every tussle at the line of scrimmage the fire of character maturation.”

Stark, a sociologist, and Stagg, a football coach, both have seen and celebrated the humanity of the rugged game of football, and you should too. Football has always had its critics. In the early portion of the 20th century, president Theodore Roosevelt referred to such people as mollycoddles. Do not allow 21st century mollycoddles to steal your enjoyment of the pageantry and excitement of football this season. Be inspired by the honed physical gifts and determination of those who participate in a disciplined, majestic sport that fuses ballet-like choreography with brute power and force. Ask yourself, what parallels you can glean to help you think about your own spiritual life or the discipleship of your children. And thank God for the humanity of football.

By / May 29

Jackie Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in southern Georgia. His grandfather had been born into slavery and his parents worked on a plantation in the postbellum South for $12 a month until his father abandoned them when Jackie was 16 months old. After Jackie’s father left, the plantation owner ordered the family to leave. Mallie, Jackie’s 30-year-old Christian mother, boarded a Jim Crow train and took her five children to Pasadena, Calif., for a new start with family who lived there.

Robinson biographer, Arnold Rampersad, writes about Mallie in his book Jackie Robinson: “She worked hard to instill in them the key values she herself had learned growing up in Georgia, about the importance of family, education, optimism, self-discipline, and, above all, God.” He adds, “Family was vital to Mallie, but God was supreme . . . [she had] a never-ending sensitivity to God’s power, an urge to carry out the divine will as set out in the Bible.” Jackie Robinson writes in I Never had it Made, “My mother had made it a point to see that we got to church and Sunday school.”

The Reverend Karl Downs was the second most formative influence on Jackie’s early life and he described him as, “both stubborn and courageous,” traits that would be ascribed to him as well. His faith in Christ deepened through the influence of Karl Downs and Jackie became a Sunday school teacher at the church. Robinson’s athletic prowess was legendary. At UCLA, he lettered in basketball, baseball, football and track. Had the color of his skin been white, teams in several sports would have been fighting over his services. After a stint serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Jackie accepted an offer to play for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Leagues.

A heroic cause

In 1945, Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier in major league baseball by signing Robinson. Rickey was a Christian who became like a father to Jackie. Billy Graham said Rickey, “…was a man of deep piety and integrity—that rare combination of a 'man's man' and a Christian man, at the same time.” Rickey believed that a great player, who was also the right person, full of moral character and courage, willing to commit to non-retaliation for three years—except with his play on the field—could end what he called the “odious injustice” of racism in the game he loved. During their initial encounter Rickey told Robinson he would have to wear an “armor of humility” and read to him from Giovanni Papini's, “Life of Christ” and the biblical account of the Sermon on the Mount.

In 1947, when Robinson courageously ran on to Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he was defying the reigning powers. As Rickey had already made clear to Robinson, there was virtually no one in authority on their side: press, players, team owners, umpires, as well as most politicians and civil authorities would oppose them. Robinson’s major league debut was 16 years before Martin Luther King's “I have a Dream” speech, 17 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 18 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Rickey laid out and Robinson lived out an incipient strategy of the bold and courageous nonviolence that would be later utilized by Martin Luther King Jr. in the larger Civil Rights movement.

Robinson's willingness to endure humiliation, shame and persecution for the greater good of pursuing racial equality is a story of Christian conviction and awe-inspiring moral courage. Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson believed that it was God's will for them to give themselves to this heroic cause. In 1962, Robinson was the first black player ever voted into the baseball Hall of Fame. The odious injustice that Robinson suffered throughout his life was based on one simple and unavoidable reality: the color of his skin.

The differences between Jackie and Michael

Michael Sam has been referred to as the new Jackie Robinson. He was an excellent college football defensive end at the University of Missouri. He was drafted on May 10, 2014, as the 249th overall selection in the NFL draft by the St. Louis Rams. As a late round draft pick who had a poor performance at the NFL's scouting combine, his first challenge will be making the St. Louis Rams 53-man roster. Sam may turn out to be a great NFL football player, but it appears he has an uphill battle. The reason Sam’s selection in the NFL draft has received so much attention is that on February 9, 2014, he announced publicly that he was gay.

Jackie Robinson and Michael Sam share the same skin color and are both athletes whose entrance in professional sports caused a stir in the media. And that is where the similarities end.

Robinson was an unquestionable talent who was named rookie of the year in his first major league baseball season. The only thing that had kept him out of the major leagues was his skin color and institutional racism. Sam’s future in the NFL will be decided by whether he is talented enough and not an off-field distraction. Robinson endured hatred and persecution because of his skin color whereas Sam’s homosexuality is a self-identification.

Robinson initially sought to avoid media attention that was not directly related to his baseball performance. He was not simply trying to overcome unjust laws and practices. He was trying to change the mind and hearts of ordinary Americans who foolishly thought blacks did not possess the mental toughness and personal character to compete with whites in professional sports and other walks of life.

Sam’s public statement caused the media attention and made his identity as a homosexual a major issue. The on-camera kiss with his boyfriend when he was selected and the talk of a reality television show have fueled the focus on his sexual identity. Sam faces no pervasive American sentiment that homosexuals are inherently inferior and incapable of competing effectively in the NFL.

The environment in which Sam made his announcement bears little resemblance to what Robinson faced when signed by Branch Rickey. The media has almost uniformly celebrated Sam’s announcement and immediately began hailing him a hero of Robinson proportions. Robinson encountered death threats, threats of violence on the field, teammates who refused to play with him, opposing teams that threatened not to take the field against him. He could not stay in the same hotels as his white teammates or eat at the same restaurants. Sam became the first openly gay NFL player drafted and he did so in a context where 17 states have already redefined marriage by legalizing same-sex marriage. Much of the institutional and structural authority in America is committed to aiding the cultural momentum to normalize homosexuality in all aspects of American culture.

Martin Luther King Jr. said Robinson was, “A pilgrim that walked in the lonesome byways toward the high road of Freedom. He was a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” King was influenced by Robinson and stated that he helped pave the way for his dream of racial equality. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech King said, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!” King’s dream appealed to the authority of Bible and the Christian gospel in combatting the sinful idolatry of racism.

A different dream

Many are using Sam to advocate a dream that is at odds with the core message of the civil rights struggle. It is a call not to judge one by the color of their skin or the content of their character. Homosexuality is a sin and we must have enough gospel courage and love for people to tell the truth about sin and to point sinners to the gospel of Christ. I am committing to pray for Michael Sam. I hope he makes the Rams 53-man roster. I am praying he follows in the footsteps of Jackie Robinson’s faith in Christ and that his Christian teammates befriend, love and serve him in Jesus name.

The Spirit of Christ met the challenge of Jim Crow with a call to faith and repentance, and we must meet the challenge of the sexual liberationist movement with that same call. Satan is pleased with the narrative that Michael Sam is the new Jackie Robinson because it is his same old temptation to look at the world without the cross of Christ (Matt. 4:1-11). But the evil one would be equally pleased for Christians to look at the world without the cross of Christ from the opposing direction by declaring war on Sam as a two-dimensional enemy in an abstract culture war as if his failure would be our victory.

Jackie Robinson’s faith led him to courageously oppose the evil of white supremacy but also to oppose with equal fervency the black supremacy of Malcolm X. He knew that his opponent was not his enemy but rather his mission. The church would do well to follow his example in responding to the gay sexual revolution. After all, victory for us is not the defeat of our cultural opponents but their rescue. We all are, as Paul references, the “and such were some of you” people; racists, fornicators, homosexuals, thieves, idolaters, drunkards, and swindlers, who are washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11).