Football Coach Who Received Complaint for Worshiping With Students Lauds Court's Decision on Gameday Prayer


Matt Miethe keeps a disciplinary letter hanging in his office, after school officials eight years ago requested he stop attending church with student-athletes from Rogers High School.

Above that letter is a written message: "The Lord wins."

"We weren't doing it to try to convert any players to Christianity," said Miethe, who in 2013 was the head football coach at Rogers High School 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 on the Pirates football team, worshiping with students at Colbert Chapel. That photo prompted a complaint from an organization called the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which supports legal activity to establish barriers between churches and the classroom.

The disciplinary letter was placed in his file, and Miethe left the job as Rogers head football coach at the end of that season, though it was to take a job with Whitworth University and not related to the complaint.

That foundation filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court before its decision last week in favor of a Bremerton high school football coach who was fired after holding postgame, midfield prayers. The foundation has called the decision harmful to "our secular republic."

Miethe, however, believes the court affirmed the right of players and coaches to personally offer prayers for safety before, and prayers of thanks after, a contest.

"It's a very violent game. There are people across the country that have lost their life doing it," Miethe said. "As a believer, you better believe that before a game I'm praying."

The 6-3 majority opinion, authored by Justice 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 students or fans attending to participate.

"Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment," Gorsuch wrote.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote that even if the coercion is not direct, it can be implied and should raise Constitutional questions for coaches and students.

The court's minority also emphasized that Kennedy's prayers were not brief, quiet or personal, and that the surrounding attention had disrupted school activities.

The majority opinion "applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities," Sotomayor wrote.

Miethe said he understood the "slippery slope" of a coach inviting students to pray.

"We made it very clear, as much as we could, that anything that we did that was attached to prayer, or church, or anything of a religious belief, that it was 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 attempt to push the boundaries of permissible speech and speak publicly about religion or invite prayers, said Patrick Elliott, senior counsel for the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"I do think coaches who try to take this, and push their religion on kids, are going to be sorely mistaken," Elliott said.

That wasn't the intention of any religious observances by Rogers football players, Miethe said, including a pregame prayer session that was led by alumni and students in partnership with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The team will continue its partnership with a postgame breakfast Saturday mornings at Hillyard Baptist Church, which commences with a voluntary prayer.

They also conduct leadership classes for team captains, Miethe said.

Miethe also said he believed adherents of other religions should be permitted to observe prayer before and after games in the manner they see fit.

"Whether that's Jesus Christ, or Allah, that is something that is part of being American," Miethe said.