The United States Constitution includes various protections for religious beliefs. These include the Free Exercise Clause and the Establishment Clause, both incorporated in the First Amendment. The Free Exercise Clause grants citizens the right to practice their religion freely, as long as it does not violate public standards or go against a “compelling government interest.” The Establishment Clause dictates that the government cannot endorse a particular religion. After Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court established a three-part test called the Lemon Test to decide whether a practice violated the Establishment Clause. The three parts are:
- a) Does the practice have a clear secular purpose?
- b) Does the effect of the practice advance or block religion?
- c) Does the practice result in excessive government entanglement?
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District examines the establishment clause and its role in personal religious practices, particularly in school settings.
Facts of the Case
Joseph Kennedy started working as a high school football coach at Bremerton High School in 2008. After games, he began a personal tradition of praying at the 50-yard line as a way of giving thanks. This thirty second long prayer generally took place after the coaches and players shook hands. Over time, many players on his team joined him in prayer. Kennedy began adding motivational statements to his prayers. However, he explicitly stated that he “never pressured or encouraged any student to join” his prayers; they joined out of their own will. In fact, the team often had their own prayers without their coach in the locker room.
Kennedy continued this practice for over seven years. On September 17, 2015, the superintendent gave Kennedy a letter, stating that he was engaging in two problematic practices: giving motivational talks that included religious material and leading the team in prayers in the locker room. The District argued that this caused tension between the establishment clause and an employee’s right to practice their religion.
On October 14th, Kennedy sent a letter to the District, stating that he would like to continue his private practice, even if it means praying while the team was engaged in other activities. However, the district replied saying that he had to cease any activity that may make it seem like a District-approved coach was endorsing religion so that the District did not violate the Establishment Clause.
After a game on October 16, Kennedy bowed his head to silently pray, spurring media attention. The next week, the District sent another letter to Kennedy, acknowledging that he silently prayed while the team was engaged in other activity. Nevertheless, they explained that while he was on duty as a coach, he could not be seen engaging in religious practices. If he wanted to pray, he had to do it in a private area. However, for the next two games, Kennedy still prayed afterwards, causing the District to put Kennedy on leave and giving him a poor employee evaluation, despite the fact that he received good evaluations in past years.
Kennedy sued and eventually, he was granted certiorari by the Supreme Court. The question of the case Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was: Is a public school employee’s prayer during school sports activities protected speech, and if so, can the public school employer prohibit it to avoid violating the Establishment Clause?
The Court ruled 6-3 in favor of Joseph Kennedy, arguing that a high school coach’s prayer was allowed according to the First Amendment. Neil Gorsuch delivered the Opinion of the Court. In cases involving freedom of speech, the question often revolves around whether the particular speech was private speech or government speech. With individuals such as school employees, it can become complicated because they technically represent the government. According to the Court, Kennedy prayed after the game, when the team was engaged in other matters, meaning he was not on duty as a coach at the time. The Court rejected the Lemon Test for this case, instead examining “historical practices and understandings.” Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas concurred. They all expressed that the district cannot regulate private activities, even though Kennedy was on duty as the school coach at the time.
Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Bryer, and Elena Kagan dissented. Justice Sotomayor believed that the majority opinion solely focused on the free Exercise Clause and neglected the Establishment Clause. She cited Engel v. Vitale, which established that school officials could not lead prayers at school. She argued that this case ignores past precedents and would be a violation of the separation of church and state.
This ruling is a drastic change from past cases of similar nature. It completely disregards the Lemon Test, calling into question the consistency of the Court in its handling of Establishment Clause cases. The case establishes a new and dangerous precedent for future cases regarding school prayers, narrowing the line between allowing free exercise and endorsing a religion. It raises questions about when a private practice begins to encroach on school activity.
Irene Biju is from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, studying Public Policy and Computer Science.