Next year will mark 60 years since the Supreme Court banned school-sponsored prayer. The High Court’s decision in Engel v. Vitale set off a chain of events that would slowly strip away religious liberty and have consequences that we are still fighting against today. One such example is Kennedy v. Bremerton, a six-year-old case that is knocking on the Court’s door for a second time.
In 2008, Joseph Kennedy was hired by the Bremerton school district in Washington state to coach football. For seven years, after every game, Coach Kennedy would take a knee on the field to say a short prayer giving thanks to God. This silent, 15-second prayer after players left the field led someone to offer a compliment to the school. However, a school staff member decided to return the compliment with malice. After the superintendent heard of the situation, he sent a letter to Coach Kennedy claiming that he neglected his students during that time, and it would cause others to think the district was endorsing religion. Coach Kennedy was suspended and eventually, his contract was terminated.
After teaming up with attorneys from First Liberty Institute, Coach Kennedy sued the school district for violating his First Amendment rights. After the case made its way to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the court found that his termination was acceptable due to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from creating a law that establishes an official religion or favors one religion over another. Coach Kennedy was neither creating a law nor favoring one religion over another, so when the ruling came out, it rightfully drew outrage.
Our Constitution clearly allows for the free exercise of religion whether someone is on the clock or otherwise. However, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling placed severe limitations on Americans’ religious freedoms. The ruling advances the false premise that Americans lose their First Amendment freedoms when they accept employment. The ruling indicates that the Court does not view Americans as individuals, rather extensions of our employers. We are now seeing this dangerous ideology play out in other contexts, such as vaccine mandates. Corporations and government want to dictate how you live your life. This is precisely the evil our founding fathers drafted the Constitution to protect against.
Coach Kennedy’s attorneys appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court in 2019. Unfortunately, the justices declined to hear it, but with a caveat. Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh made it clear that they did not necessarily agree with the lower court’s ruling and would consider hearing the case after further litigation.
Former Vice President Mike Pence’s organization, Advancing American Freedom, filed an amicus brief that was joined by 71 organizations all urging the Court to take up the case. The brief stated:
Personal speech cannot violate the Establishment Clause. Silent prayers of thanks, briefly and personally offered, do not violate the Establishment Clause simply because the public can see them. BSD never should have prohibited Coach Kennedy’s personal prayer in the first place.
This case has caught the attention of lawmakers as well. Twelve Senators and fourteen Representatives filed an amicus brief as well. Their brief states:
The Ninth Circuit’s ruling imperils the most basic forms of individual religious expression by each of the public school teachers and coaches within its jurisdiction. The effect is alarming. Take, for example, a teacher who observes Ash Wednesday, or a principal who visibly bows her head in silent prayer in a busy cafeteria before eating. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling requires schools to tamp down all such expressions –– or terminate all teachers, coaches, and staff who will not check their religion at the door –– under the auspice of the Establishment Clause.
Eagle Forum is honored to be one of the 71 organizations that signed onto Advancing American Freedom’s amicus brief. We thank Vice President Pence and Advancing American Freedom for leading on this issue, and we hope that the Supreme Court will hear the case and uphold individuals’ first amendment freedom of religion in the workplace.