By Rev. Greg Reffner
This particular student has been my neighbor since we moved into the parsonage. He is a kind, thoughtful, and smart senior high school student who is curious about religion but does not adhere to any particular tradition. He comes to our church’s youth gatherings because we’re friends and keeps up with me and several others in our faith community. This student is one of the many Bremerton public school students that I had in my heart as I traveled to Washington D.C. with a cohort of Bremerton faith leaders to voice our support for our local school district in the Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a case that the Supreme Court heard on April 25th.
If you are unfamiliar with the case, I don’t blame you. The disputed events took place over six years ago, and the all-important facts of the case have been curiously undecided for just as long. A quick google search will tell you that one of the Bremerton high school football coaches was leading post-game Christian prayer on the 50-yard line after home football games that students participated in. When asked to stop by the district, citing the separation of church and state and the first amendment establishment clause, he refused.
But I’m not a lawyer; I’m a pastor. And as a United Methodist pastor, one of the things I regularly teach and preach is how Christians ought to follow the example of our God and continually examine the power and privilege that we hold and consider what it looks like to let go of that power and privilege so that our local neighborhoods might reflect the communities of love, justice, and peace that Jesus came to establish.
The fact is that Coach Kennedy was in a position of authority; he was a man who was looked up to by his players. He made calls about who played and who sat on the bench. His prayers did not examine the power and privilege that he held as a white, male, evangelical Christian; his prayers exploited it to proselytize vulnerable high school students. Yeah, Christian Nationalism still has a strong hold on our country.
It was an honor for me to serve alongside other Christian and Jewish clergy from Bremerton as we supported our local school district. While enforcing the separation of church and state may seem like an attack on Christianity, I learned from a Jewish rabbi in Bremerton that this separation is the only reason they, a religious minority, are free to worship in America. My siblings in Christ, I encourage you to see what is truly at stake with this case. It is not an attack on our religious practices. If SCOTUS rules in favor of the coach, it will signal further erosion in the separation of church and state and one more desperate attempt for American Christianity to clamor for the power and privilege that was never ours to have.
Rev. Gregory Reffner serves as pastor of Brownsville United Methodist Church in Bremerton, Washington.