A Capehart Scatchard Blog

U.S. Supreme Court Rules First Amendment Protects Public School Coach’s Post-Game Prayer

By on July 7, 2022 in Other with 0 Comments

By: Angela Reading, Law Clerk

Editor: Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq.

On June 27, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District held that a public school football coach’s prayers on the football field, in public after football games, were protected under the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. The ruling highlights a conflict between First Amendment rights in public schools: the right to freely practice and express religion and the right of others to be free from the state endorsing religion.

For years, Joseph Kennedy, an assistant football coach in Bremerton, Washington, walked to the 50-yard line after games and visibly offered a prayer – first alone, but later with players and even some members of the opposing team joining him. When school officials learned of this practice, they asked him to stop, concerned that students may feel compelled to participate and the practice would give the impression that the district endorsed the religious activity, as the coach was still “on-duty” as a district employee. The coach temporarily agreed to stop but soon resumed his post-game prayers, declining offers by district officials to accommodate his prayer in other, less public ways. The school district placed the coach on administrative leave and, eventually, declined to renew his contract for the following season.

The coach sued in federal court, alleging that the school district’s actions violated the First Amendment. Both the District Court and the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the school district. They concluded that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which protects citizens from a state-endorsed religion, required public school districts to prevent teachers from praying where students might see them because students might feel coerced into joining in prayer.

The Supreme Court disagreed and reversed. In viewing the facts of this case, the Court determined that the coach’s conduct was private prayer. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that two other clauses in the First Amendment, the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses, protected a public employee’s right to engage in private prayer on school grounds, even if students might join in, and that the Establishment Clause does not require the government to single out religious expression for “special disfavor.”

The majority rejected a line of cases beginning with Lemon v. Kurtzman. In Lemon, the Court created a test for when religious expression could rise to the level of an “establishment of religion.” In overturning Lemon, the Court held that the Establishment Clause should be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings. The Court stated, “The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.”

The Court also dismissed the school district’s argument that students might have felt obligated to join the coach’s prayers. The Court noted that in this case, the coach’s “private religious exercise did not come close to crossing any line one might imagine separating protected private expression from impermissible government coercion.”

Moving forward, school districts should exercise caution in restricting employee conduct related to private prayer. Furthermore, this case continues to support the requirement that school districts engage in a fact-specific analysis when faced with employees and First Amendment issues.

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About the Author

About the Author:

Sanmathi (Sanu) Dev, Esq. concentrates her practice on the representation of boards of education and charter schools in all areas of school law including: labor and employment, special education, Section 504, student discipline, FERPA, Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, student residency, civil rights, tenure, OPRA, and OPMA. In connection with these representations, she is experienced in handling matters before State and Federal courts, including the Office of Administrative Law. Ms. Dev is an experienced special education litigator and defends school districts in due process hearings from inception through trial. In addition, she has handled matters before governmental agencies, including the U.S. Office for Civil Rights and New Jersey Division on Civil Rights. Ms. Dev routinely conducts training and seminars, drafts policies and manuals, and provides strategic advice to school administrators regarding school law issues. Ms. Dev was recently recognized as one of South Jersey’s Awesome Attorneys as published by South Jersey Magazine. She is licensed to practice law in New Jersey, the District Court for the District of New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

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