Scott Reder | Where, when issues complicate free speech | Columns


Our society has developed a bit of consternation about people kneeling on football pitches.

First, there was former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Donald Trump’s response: “Take that (expletive) off the pitch.”

Sigh.

On April 25, the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Joseph Kennedy, a high school football coach from Bremerton, Washington, who was suspended from his job after repeatedly kneeling on the field of football and praying after games.

This made some school officials uncomfortable.

But here’s the catch; the only speech worth defending is one that makes people feel uncomfortable.

Writers at centre-left publication Slate wring their hands at the prospect of a praying coach. They spoke of a broad right-wing conspiracy that would turn public schools into zones of religious indoctrination if the High Court ruled in favor of Kennedy.

Although I identify as an evangelical Christian, there is something about these types of public prayers that makes me uncomfortable. I think of Jesus’ warning in the book of Matthew: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they like to stand and pray in synagogues and on street corners, so that others can see them. Verily I say unto you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your room and close the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

So if someone asked me if I think this is an effective way for Coach Kennedy to share his faith, I would say “No”. But if someone asked me if he should be allowed to express himself in this way, I would answer: “Yes”.

I feel the same for Kaepernick. Personally, I can’t see myself kneeling during the national anthem. But I fully recognize that racism and brutality remain huge problems in law enforcement. I have discovered many such cases over the past 35 years.

That said, I support Kaepernick. He and other athletes should be able to peacefully petition their government in any way they see fit.

Unfortunately, different factions in our society, both left and right, want to silence those with whom they disagree. This approach is the antithesis of a free society.

When in doubt, opt for freedom of expression.

I started my journalism career covering the medical branch of the University of Texas for the Galveston Daily News. Shortly before I took over, a college cop arrested a Muslim man for kneeling and praying on campus.

My reaction at the time was that it was stupid. Why would the government interfere with this man’s ability to pray?

Some might say the difference is that Kennedy is in a position of authority and his actions violate the separation of church and state.

But the problem with this argument is that we don’t live in an antiseptic society. A math teacher wearing a yarmulke, a principal with an Ash Wednesday cross on his forehead, or a history teacher wearing a hijab also express their faith in state-sanctioned environments.

Would we really want to ban such acts? I do not think so.

An unnamed athlete said he felt compelled to kneel with Kennedy because he feared if he didn’t he would lose playing time.

But Virginia Tech University football player Kiersten Hening says she was kicked off the team last year when she refused to kneel during the national anthem.

No one should ever feel pressured to express themselves in a way contrary to their conscience. But neither should anyone be prevented from freely expressing their beliefs.

Determine where to draw the line between the two; this is the hardest part.

Scott Reeder is a seasoned state reporter and editor for the Illinois Times. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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