Good leaders use their power and influence to advance a common purpose.
In prioritizing his religious beliefs over his responsibility to student athletes, former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy failed that essential test.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide whether Bremerton school officials acted illegally when they terminated Kennedy’s employment after he refused to stop leading public postgame prayers in 2015. Court justices heard oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on April 25. A decision is expected next month.
But regardless of how the court rules, Kennedy failed his duties as a public school employee. His defense, that students didn’t have to join him in prayer at the 50-yard line, sidesteps the bigger issue: What message did his impromptu religious observances send to students who didn’t share his Christian faith?
As coach, Kennedy’s job transcended the basics of teaching drills and skills to include lessons in values like sportsmanship, teamwork and perseverance. Bremerton’s student athletes, like those in many high schools, agree to follow standards of academic performance and ethical conduct. Coaches like Kennedy interpret and enforce those rules.
Kennedy overstepped when he inserted his religious beliefs into that environment, adding religious references to inspirational speeches and leading locker room prayers until school officials learned what he was doing. When they asked him to stop, he made the postgame prayer sessions “voluntary,” but his preferences were already clear.
Instead of finding a new, more appropriate way to unify and lead his team, Kennedy drew a line in the sand — putting his students in an even more difficult position. Instead of simply being subjected to religious teachings in a public-school setting, the young athletes were forced to make a public declaration: Were they aligned with their coach on the postgame prayer thing, or were they not?
That was a selfish move. Regardless of whether students felt pressured into participating in religious practices to stay in his good graces, Kennedy should have anticipated that possibility.
This is a case of poor leadership wrapped in the cloak of religious freedom, and a lesson:
While a leader’s words can have a powerful impact, it is their actions that matter most.