Celebrating Two Big Wins Protecting Prayer and Religious Expression

June 27, 2023
First Liberty Insider | Supreme Victory | Coach Kennedy

by Ethan Tong & Jorge Gomez • 6 min read

In June, we’re celebrating our seven Supreme Court victories of the past five years that provided lasting religious freedom for all Americans.

This week, we celebrate not one, but two important wins at the nation’s highest court that were crucial in protecting religious expression and the right of Americans to pray.

We begin with our landmark victory last year in Coach Kennedy’s case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. On June 27, 2022, the Supreme Court upheld Coach Kennedy’s right to take a knee in prayer after games. But this was a victory going far beyond the prayers of one coach.

The ruling in Coach Kennedy’s case was not just an important case—it was a monumental one. It protected the right of teachers, coaches and employees across America to pray on a public school campus.

The ruling changed the landscape of religious freedom law. The Court overturned what was called the Lemon test. 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. In Kennedy, the Court delivered the final blow to Lemon and set a major precedent affirming that the government cannot censor private religious expression.

Since the decision came down on June 27, we’re designating that day as First Freedom Day. It is a day to celebrate that we made history together!

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The impact of Coach Kennedy’s case is going to be felt all across the country. Legal textbooks will have to be rewritten. Moving forward, our courts and law schools will cite the Kennedy case as the standard. Now, courts can reference the Kennedy ruling when protecting the right of public school employees to exercise their religion. Now, religious teachers do not have to be afraid to wear a yarmulke to school, or pray before a meal they eat on school grounds.

We celebrate this win today as a turning point for religious freedom. But this isn’t the first or only time we’ve successfully protected Americans’ right to pray at the Supreme Court.

Mary Anne Sause: No Prayer Place Like Home

In addition to Coach Kennedy’s win, we remember our 2018 Supreme Court victory on behalf of Mary Anne Sause, a retired Kansas nurse who was told by two police officers to stop praying in her home.

A decade ago, the officers demanded entry into Mary Anne’s home in Louisburg, Kansas to investigate a minor noise complaint. Although she politely complied with their requests, she felt harassed and intimidated. And then the officers outrageously ordered her to stop praying…in her own living room.

Not only did these officers violate Mary Anne’s constitutional rights by telling her to stop praying in her home, she also felt ridiculed and mocked because of her desire to pray. No American citizen should ever be subjected to such outrageous behavior by government officials.

That’s why First Liberty—along with our friends and volunteer attorneys at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher—took the case to the nation’s highest court. In our petition we asked the Supreme Court to reaffirm that all Americans have the right to pray in their own home.

The Court agreed. On June 28, 2018, the Court issued a stunning, unanimous summary reversal. All nine Justices, in an unsigned opinion, upheld the constitutional right of Americans to pray. The order made it clear: “There can be no doubt that the first Amendment protects the right to pray. Prayer unquestionably constitutes the ‘exercise’ of religion.”

The Supreme Court also reversed a lower circuit court ruling that had shielded the officers from liability, even though they would have known that they were violating Mary Anne’s First Amendment rights.

After years of fighting in court, our attorneys vindicated Mary Anne’s constitutional rights. And this wasn’t just a victory for one nurse in Kansas, but a win for millions of religious people in our country. The Supreme Court’s decision in Sause v. Bauer sent a clear message: Americans are entitled to religious liberty in one of the most sacred and protected spaces—the home.

As we celebrate, we want to say thank you for standing by our clients and First Liberty. Because of your support, Coach Joe and Mary Anne didn’t have to fight alone. They had a team of the best attorneys in America on their side, helping them fight—and win—these difficult legal battles.

At the end of June, we will wrap up our Fiscal Year—and we need your help to reach our yearly goal. If you give to First Liberty any time between today and June 30th, your donation will have a multiplied impact thanks to a generous $350,000 Challenge Grant!

Can we count on your support? You’re the one keeping us on the frontlines, fighting for what matters most.

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