Rogers football coach who received complaint about worshiping with students praises court’s decision on gameday prayer

Matt Miethe keeps a disciplinary letter in his office after school officials asked him to stop going to church with Rogers High School athletes eight years ago.

Above this letter is a written message: “The Lord wins.”

“We didn’t do it to try to convert any players to Christianity,” said Miethe, who was the head football coach at Rogers High School in 2013 and now serves as the team’s offensive coordinator.

The letter was in response to a complaint filed after The Spokesman-Review published a photo of Miethe as part of a series about the Pirates football team praying with students at Colbert Chapel. This photo prompted a complaint from an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which supports legal activities to erect barriers between churches and the classroom.

The disciplinary letter was placed on his file, and Miethe left the job as Rogers’ head football coach at the end of that season, despite being due to take a job at Whitworth University and having nothing to do with the complaint.

That foundation filed a brief with the US Supreme Court before ruling last week in favor of a Bremerton High School football coach who was fired after holding midfield prayers after the game. The foundation has called the decision damaging to “our secular republic”.

However, Miethe believes the court upheld the right of players and coaches to personally pray for safety before a competition and offer prayers of thanks after a competition.

“It’s a very brutal game. There are people all over the country who have lost their lives in the process,” said Miethe. “As a believer, you better believe I pray before a game.”

The 6–3 majority opinion, authored by Judge Neil Gorsuch, found that Joseph Kennedy’s prayers were protected by the First Amendment because they were private and occurred at a time that did not compel participating students or fans to attend.

“Here a government agency sought to punish a person for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal practice of religion doubly protected by the freedom of practice and freedom of expression clauses of the First Amendment,” Gorsuch wrote.

In contrast, Judge Sonia Sotomayor wrote that even if the coercion is not direct, it can be implied and should raise constitutional issues for coaches and students.

The court minority also emphasized that Kennedy’s prayers were not short, quiet, or personal, and that the attention of those around him had interfered with school activities.

The majority opinion “applies an almost toothless version of coercive analysis and fails to recognize the unique pressures students face when participating in school-sponsored activities,” Sotomayor wrote.

Miethe said he understands the “slippery slope” of a coach inviting students to prayer.

“We made it very clear, as best we could, that anything we do that involves prayer, church or anything with a religious belief is voluntary,” Miethe said.

The majority’s finding that Kennedy’s prayers were private and quiet should be read as a warning to educators who may try to push the boundaries of permitted speech and speak publicly about religion or invite prayers, said Patrick Elliott, Freedom’s senior counsel FromReligionFoundation.

“I think coaches who try to take that and force their religion on kids are going to be badly mistaken,” Elliott said.

That was not the intent of any of the Rogers football players’ religious observances, Miethe said, including a pregame prayer session led by alumni and students in partnership with the Christian Athlete Fellowship. The team will continue their partnership with a post-game breakfast Saturday morning at the Hillyard Baptist Church, beginning with an optional prayer.

They also run leadership courses for team captains, Miethe said.

Miethe also said he believes adherents of other religions should be allowed to pray as they see fit before and after the games.

“Whether it’s Jesus Christ or Allah, that’s part of being American,” said Miethe.

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