SCOTUS Upholds First Amendment Protections for Religious Expression

The Supreme Court of the United States held that quiet personal prayers by school employees are protected acts under the plain language of the First Amendment.

In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (June 27, 2022), high school football coach Joseph Kennedy “knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer.” An important fact is that Kennedy did not recruit students or staff to join him; this was a purely personal expression of a genuinely held religious belief. The school fired Kennedy for his “religious conduct,” claiming that Kennedy’s actions were a violation of the Establishment Clause (separation of church and state). The school district claimed, without evidentiary support, that any religious demonstration by a school official was inherently coercive to students. But as the Court succinctly rejoined, “concerns about phantom constitutional violations do not justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.”

Long story short, the government is not allowed to prescribe acceptable spiritual beliefs and practices. School employees and students are free to express their religious beliefs even while on school grounds. The Establishment Clause is not intended to “make it necessary for government to be hostile to religion.” Instead, the writers of the Constitution envisioned a society in which a diverse spectrum of individuals coexist with various religious and secular beliefs, without the government either elevating or destroying religion or secularism. “A rule that the only acceptable government role models for students are those who eschew any visible religious expression would undermine a long constitutional tradition in which learning how to tolerate diverse expressive activities has always been part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.”

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