by Mia Gradick & Jorge Gomez • 5 min read
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of our client, Coach Joe Kennedy, last week. In a 6-3 decision, the Court upheld the right of the former high school football coach to take a knee in quiet, personal prayer on the 50-yard line. With this win, he can finally return to the place he belongs.
Not only is this a tremendous victory for Coach Joe, but also a win for all Americans. Here is a deeper look at this landmark decision for religious liberty.
Affirming the Right of All Americans to Freely Live Out Their Faith
The Court held that Coach Kennedy’s prayer was doubly protected by both the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses of the First Amendment. In other words, Coach Kennedy has a constitutional right to pray.
Part of the Court’s reasoning was that if a coach is free to take 30 seconds after a game for other personal activities, such as taking a phone call, then he must be allowed to use that time to kneel in prayer. The school district could no longer single out religious expression for uniquely disfavored treatment. In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch wrote:
“The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike…That the First Amendment doubly protects religious speech is no accident. It is a natural outgrowth of the framers’ distrust of government attempts to regulate religion and suppress dissent.”
This makes clear that government cannot censor, suppress or dictate private religious expression. Government punishing someone for living out their faith runs afoul of our nation’s founding principles. The decision correctly points out that “the Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.”
To many, this appears obvious. But at a time of increasing hostility against religious expression, the Court’s affirmation of this truth is incredibly important. It brings much-needed clarity regarding religious expression by public employees.
Public employers, especially within school districts, often misunderstand their obligations under the First Amendment’s religion clauses. Coach Kennedy’s Supreme Court victory clarifies that government does not need to show hostility toward religion. It does not need to fire public employees for living out their faith. This is a more accurate interpretation of the Constitution, one that’s consistent with our history and traditions.
Overturning a Sour Precedent
Coach Kennedy’s win also helps rectify a precedent known as the “Lemon Test”, which has harmed and haunted religious freedom for 50 years. The decision builds on recent Supreme Court rulings that have said the “Lemon test” is no longer good law.
The test, named after the Supreme Court decision in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), made it too easy for people to claim they are “offended” by a religious display, then sue and win in court. The test caused many school administrators to mistakenly believe they had an obligation to suppress religious observances, often leading them to violate the rights of teachers and students.
If you have been following First Liberty for the past few years, you may recall our landmark victory in American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2019).
In that ruling, the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial, a cross-shaped monument located on government property in Maryland. It also made an important change in our constitutional law, returning to a more common sense reading of the First Amendment. For cases involving religious displays, the Court abandoned Lemon.
In American Legion, the Court returned to a more constitutionally faithful “history and tradition” test:
“Where monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history follow in the tradition of the First Congress…and recognizing the important role religion plays in the lives of many Americans, they are likewise constitutional.”
In other words, our Bladensburg Peace Cross victory was the beginning of the end for Lemon. Coach Kennedy’s victory appears to have put it away permanently. The Kennedy ruling stated:
“This Court long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot… In place of Lemon and the endorsement test, this Court has instructed that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the Court’s liberal justices, disagreed with the majority opinion. Nonetheless, her dissent made this important statement: “The Court overrules Lemon v. Kurtzman.”
More Religious Freedom Than You’ve Had in 50 Years
Last week’s Supreme Court victory finally vindicated Coach Kennedy. The decision rights the wrongs done to this American hero. He can return to the place he belongs, coaching on the field and quietly praying by himself after the game.
This victory, however, did not just deliver justice for only one coach in Washington state. It has a nationwide impact on public-school teachers, employees and coaches. It affirms their constitutional right to engage in brief, quiet, personal prayer in public and sets a major precedent for religious freedom in our country moving forward. Thanks to this win, you and millions of Americans have more religious liberty in more than half a century.