OPINION: What the New York Times Gets Wrong About Kennedy v. Bremerton

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Written by Jason Miller, Director of Operations and Special Projects for Interfaith Alliance

I’ll admit it: while I’ve always loved the radio, I’ve never been much of a podcast guy. I’m a visual learner. If I want to really retain information, I have to read it. If I’m listening to a podcast, I can’t be doing much else, if I want to retain anything.

That’s why when an Interfaith Alliance colleague mentioned the sloppy reporting on a recent episode of the New York Times podcast, The Daily, on the Supreme Court case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, I was surprised. My wife listens to the podcast regularly, and I’ve caught it on occasion—it usually does a good job.

So I knew I had to listen, and I even took notes to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Despite the New York Times’s reputation and what I’d heard about the podcast, I was surprised that the episode consistently misrepresented the truth of the case

On April 25, 2022, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kennedy v. Bremerton. The case involves Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington, who violated the religious freedom of his players by pressuring them to join his public prayers on the 50-yard line immediately after football games. The school district repeatedly offered him time and space for personal prayer while on the job, but he refused, insisting he be able to pray at the center of the field, out loud, and with students. Students were concerned that not joining the coach in public prayer could negatively affect their playing time or their coach’s opinion of them. To protect the religious freedom of its students, Bremerton School District placed Mr. Kennedy on paid administrative leave. The former coach then chose not to reapply when his contract expired at the end of the year.

Within the first thirty seconds, The Daily gets this last point wrong: the hosts called what happened to Mr. Kennedy, a “firing” and said that he “lost his job,” both of which are untrue. The podcast hosts must have known, because later into the episode, they admitted that Mr. Kennedy was placed on administrative leave (not mentioning it was paid) and that the school “refused to renew his contract.” But Mr. Kennedy also decided not to reapply for the position the following season. Ultimately, it was a mutual decision. Despite the facts, The Daily repeatedly refers to Mr. Kennedy’s “firing,” even going so far as to characterize the Bremerton School District’s argument before the court as “we were justified in firing you.”

For the episode, a New York Times reporter interviewed Mr. Kennedy directly and often used his own recorded words. They portrayed him as a man whose quiet prayers were met with antagonism by the Bremerton school district. The majority of the podcast was spent on Mr. Kennedy’s biography and account of the events in his own words – largely without question.  It wasn’t until the last ten minutes of the thirty-minute podcast that The Daily started to tell the other side of the story: the side of students whose religious rights were violated. Even then, the students, parents, and administration of Bremerton schools were not granted the same narrative space as Mr. Kennedy and became little more than a footnote. 

Facts are facts, even though The Daily calls some of the details of the case, “complicating facts.” The podcast completely glosses over another important detail: the coordinated effort by the Religious Right to undermine religious freedom. For decades, they have used people like Mr. Kennedy as a pawn to achieve their ultimate political goals of not just completely eroding the lines of separation between church and state but ensuring that those who are white and Christian continue to have special privileges and ultimately the most power in our society.

The Daily is heard by nearly 2 million listeners each week. By playing into false narratives crafted by the Religious Right, they are giving a megaphone to activists who want to use this case to advance their agenda and erode the separation between religion and government. I’m thankful that my colleagues at Interfaith Alliance are standing up for the religious rights of all Americans—not just the privileged few –and that we have our own podcast that isn’t afraid to tackle complicated issues—while still getting the facts right. And even though I’m not a podcast guy, the next time State of Belief talks about “Kennedy v. Bremerton School District,” I’ll no doubt be tuning in.

Learn more about Interfaith Alliance’s efforts to strengthen public schools.