Tuesday, June 28, 2022
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a public-school district violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech rights of a football coach who prayed at the 50-yard line after football games, and that the district could not justify its violations under the Establishment Clause.
The ruling is yet another move by the Court to expand free-exercise rights at the expense of anti-establishment concerns, and thus to allow and require religion to play a larger role in public life.
Still, it's not clear exactly how far this ruling will extend. That's because Court took pains to describe the coach's prayers as private religious exercises, contrary to the facts. By one reading, then, the case only allows a public employee to engage in private religious exercise that doesn't impede their job or coerce others to join. But don't expect the Court to limit this case to its facts. This is part of a larger move to expand free-exercise rights and limit the Establishment Clause, and we can expect the Court to use this case as a building block as it moves forward in this effort.
As part of the ruling, the Court abandoned the three-part Establishment Clause test under Lemon v. Kurtzman and replaced it with a "historical practices and understandings" test that "faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers." (The Court acknowledged that this test includes an anti-coercion component, but it didn't specify exactly what coercion means.) It's not at all clear what that test means, or how lower courts will apply it. But again: this is part of the Court's larger move to expand free-exercise rights and limit the Establishment Clause, so we can expect the Court to apply this "historical practices and understandings" test consistently with that trend.
Justice Gorsuch wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh (except the part on the coach's free-speech claim), and Barrett. The Court held that the district violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses for disciplining the coach for "offer[ing] a quiet personal prayer" at the 50-yard line after football games. It went on to hold that the district couldn't justify its violations under any standard of scrutiny. It said that the district lacked a sufficient anti-establishment concern under its "historical practices and understandings" test, including that the district failed to demonstrate that the coach's prayers were impermissibly coercive.
Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan. She argued that the Court got the facts wrong--this was no private prayer, but rather a very public exhibition--and that
Today's decision goes beyond merely misreading the record. The Court overruled Lemon v. Kurtzman and calls into question decades of subsequent precedents that it deems "offshoot[s]" of that decision. In the process, the Court rejects longstanding concerns surrounding government endorsement of religion and replaces the standard for reviewing such questions with a new "history and tradition" test. In addition, while the Court reaffirms that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing participation in religious exercise, it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities. This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation's longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.