As the Supreme Court has been wrapping up its term, its decision in the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District is a landmark in the American principles of religious freedom and free speech.
In a groundbreaking decision on June 27, the court ruled in favor of a former high school football coach who prayed in public after games — and lost his job over it.
The 6-3 decision was unambiguous:
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal,” the ruling stated, “the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
Justice Gorsuch wrote the opinion and was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett. Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan dissented.
The case revolved around Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach in the Bremerton School District in Washington state, the Legal Information Institute of Cornell reported.
Kennedy had a practice of praying after school games at the 50-yard line, and students would sometimes join him.
The school asked him to stop in order to prevent the school from a lawsuit due to a violation of the Establishment Clause. The school argued that Kennedy’s decision to pray violated the Constitution’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion.
However, Kennedy refused to stop praying, which resulted in many students and parents from the community rallying around him.
Bremerton public school officials then removed him from his job in 2015, ESPN reported.
Kennedy then sued the school district arguing it violated his First Amendment right of free exercise of religion and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.
A district court ruled in favor of the school district, but Kennedy appealed and the case got passed up the chain, and eventually landed in the Supreme Court.
Throughout the case, Kennedy’s side has argued that he was praying not in his capacity as a coach employed by a government school district, but as a private citizen. As such, the school’s insistence that he stop praying was a violation of his First Amendment right to engage in private religious expression as the unofficial Supreme Court archiving site Oyez summarized it.
“When the School District fired him for that fleeting religious exercise out of endorsement concerns, it not only violated the First Amendment, but it — it ignored a veritable wall of this Court’s precedents that make clear that a school does not endorse private religious speech just because it fails to censure it,” attorney Paul Clement, of the First Liberty legal organization, argued on Kennedy’s behalf.
Kennedy also argued that coaches are role models and students seeing their mentors model private religious exercise can be beneficial without being coercive. Prohibiting such religious conduct is an expression of hostility toward religion, he argued.
As far as the school facing a possible lawsuit based on the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits the government from favoring any religion, Kennedy also contended that a simple disclaimer of endorsement from the school would have sufficed and saved the school from any lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Bremerton school district argued that Kennedy’s actions and speech fell under their authority to restrict, since he was praying on school grounds.
Bremerton’s side of the case also argued that if the court ruled in favor of Kennedy, it would open the door for teachers, coaches and others in school authority to religiously pressure students at school.
“So, if we lose this case, it would be a radical departure from decades of well-established law protecting students’ religious freedom. We think it would open the door that could be kicked in, in particular in this climate where there’s a real escalation in religious extremists across our country, to allow teachers and coaches to be able to pray again and pressure students to pray in school,” said Rachel Laser, the president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which is the organization that represent Bremerton.
Sotomayor, in her dissent, wrote that the decision gives priority to one person’s religious freedom above all religious freedom.
“It elevates one individual’s interest in personal religious exercise, in the exact time and place of that individual’s choosing, over society’s interest in protecting the separation between church and state, eroding the protections for religious liberty for all,” the dissent read.
There have been positive and negative reactions to the ruling. Some have criticized the decision saying the court is favoring religion.
Journalist Mark Stern claimed that other public employees do not have basic free speech rights.
With today’s decision, the Supreme Court effectively grants special, heightened First Amendment rights to religious speech, allowing public school teachers to pray on the job while denying most other public employees basic free speech rights. https://t.co/eC9C36Jd5v
— Mark Joseph Stern (@mjs_DC) June 27, 2022
Others, however, cheered this as a major win for religious freedom and speech.
Mike Pompeo tweeted that this was a major victor for religious freedom.
Our right to pray – anytime and anywhere – is fundamental. That right was affirmed today at our highest Court in the Kennedy v. Bremerton decision. I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom!
— Mike Pompeo (@mikepompeo) June 27, 2022
“Our right to pray – anytime and anywhere – is fundamental,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Twitter post.
“That right was affirmed today at our highest Court in the Kennedy v. Bremerton decision. I am excited to build on this victory and continue securing our inalienable right to religious freedom!
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