Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418. Opinion released June 27, 2022
Joseph Kennedy, a football coach for the Bremerton School District in Washington, lost his job because he knelt in prayer at the football field midpoint after games.
No formal proceedings or games were underway at the time.
Fearing violation of the Establishment Clause, the school district disciplined the coach because the school district believed that observers would think that the school district endorsed the coach’s beliefs.
The Court found the school district erred in its perception of the law. Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch commenced:
Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s. Nor does a proper understanding of the Amendment’s Establishment Clause require the government to single out private religious speech for special disfavor. The Constitution and the best of our traditions counsel mutual respect and tolerance, not censorship and suppression, for religious and nonreligious views alike.
After several years of what appeared to be unobjectionable prayer at practice, positive feedback from another school caused Kennedy’s school district to be concerned about the impression he was creating with ‘inspirational talks,’ on-field prayer, and locker room prayer. The school forbade Kennedy to engage in any religious activity to “avoid the perception of endorsement.” Slip Op. at 3. The school opined that school employees’ Free Exercise rights must yield to the school’s interest in precluding a perception of endorsement.
The coach ended his prayer practices after receiving correspondence spelling out the school’s position. Nonetheless, after a game, he return alone to pray on the football field because he sensed that he had broker his commitment to God.
No one was in the studio at the time.
Kennedy asked that the school district permit him to continue his post game solitary prayer practice.
The school district denied his request, reiterating that the couch could not while on duty engage in activities that might suggest endorsement.
Media coverage was sparked when the coach bowed his head at midfield after the game. Others joined the coach in prayer, while the Bremerton team was occupied singing the school fight song.
The School District posted notices forbidding public access to the filed, while discussions among officials observed that the issue was changing from the coach leading the students to the coach engaging in private prayer.
Several rounds of testing and resetting prayer limits and accommodations ensued. The School District issued a public explanation of its choices and rationales.
Coach Kennedy’s annual performance evaluation for 2015 was poor and rehire was not recommended. The evaluation said that the coach failed to follow policy and failed to supervise student athletes after games. Slip Op. at 8.
Kennedy sued the school district. He was denied injunctive relief on his Free Speech and Free Exercise claims at the trial and appellate level. The U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari, cautioning that denial of the petition did not indicate agreement with the courts below.
Another round of litigation ensued. The coach’s free speech claim was denied and he was again denied relief for his Free Exercise claim at the trial and appellate level. The trial court held that the school district had a compelling interest in prohibiting post-game prayers which if permitted would violated the Establishment Clause. Slip Op. at 9.
The Ninth Circuit, observing that the coach was on the football field only because of his position with the school, held that the School District would have violated the Establishment Clause if it failed to stop the prayer. Avoidance of Establishment Clause violation was seen as a compelling state interest.
Rehearing en banc in the Ninth Circuit was denied, with concern that it was error to hold that had the school not disciplined the coach, the school district would have violated the Establishment Clause. Others dissenting from the denial of rehearing questioned the perception that the Establishment Clause comes into play in any case in which a “reasonable observer” could perceive endorsement. Slip Op. at 10.
The Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy stresses that the Free Speech and Free Exercise clauses work together, and that the Free Speech clause protects expressive religious activities, while the Free Exercise clause protects religious exercise as such.
The added protection for free religious expression int he free speech clause reflects the Founder’s distrust of government attempts to regulate religion.
If a plaintiff meets his initial burdens, the state must show its justification is in compliance with case law.
The school district admitted its intent was to suppress Kennedy’s religious activity and its policies were not neutral. The performance evaluation included standards not generally applicable, such as post-game supervision of students.
Precedent recognizes that First Amendment rights are not shed at the schoolhouse gate. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School Distinct, 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969).
Precedent also suggests a two-step inquiry will help to understand how free speech and government employment are to be approached. At times, state efficiency in managing its services may outweigh a public employee’s free speech interests. Slip Op. at 16.
Coach Kennedy’s prayers were not related to his public duties. Any mantle of public investment in his role as a teacher had limits, including limits that would prevent private activity. Slip Op. at 19.
Although generally the school district must satisfy strict scrutiny to justify its actions, in this case the school district could not prevail under a more lenient standard.
The Supreme Court has rejected the idea that the school district was justified in disciplining the coach, for to have forgone discipline, in the school’s view, would have violated the Establishment Clause. Such a reading suggests a Constitution at war within its clauses, rather than acting in a complementary fashion. Slip Op. at 21.
The Court announced that it has not only rejected Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), but also the extension of Lemon to an “endorsement” component featuring the perceptions of a “reasonable observer.” Slip Op. at 22.
The Establishment Clause cannot serve as a “hecklers’ veto” to proscribe religion based on “perception or “discomfort.” Id.
The government has no obligation to purge any material that an observer might consider to involve religion.
History, practice, and understanding are to serve to analyze Establishment Clause claims in lieu of Lemon. Slip Op. at 23.
The Court was unpersuaded by what it perceived to be an 11th hour argument that petitioner coerced students to pray with him, as no support for this can be found in the record. Slip Op. at 24-27. Assertions of tacit or implied authority, relying on hearsay, offer no substantiation for such a claim. Slip Op. at 27. Coercion cannot be manufactured by ‘deeming’ any religious behavior to be coercive. Slip Op. at 28.
The Court vigorously rejected the nation that the First Amendment compels conflict among constitutional guarantees, concluding;
Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment. And the only meaningful justification the government offered for its reprisal rested on a mistaken view that it had a duty to ferret out and suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination.
Slip Op. at 31-32.
Justice Thomas concurred to question whether the Court ought to consider the limited “public concern” Free Speech protection accorded public employees. The Court does not indicate what an employer must do to justify any restriction on religious activity. As there was no need to do so because the Court found the school district could offer no constitutionally sound reason for its behavior, Justice Thomas questions the intimation that the “balancing” test applied in free speech cases might be imported to srve in free exercise claims.
Justice Alito concurred to observe that the decision at hand does not establish what standard ought to apply to expression under the Free Speech clause, only that retaliation for expression “cannot be justified on any of the standards discussed.”
Dissenting Justices Sotomayor, Breyer and Kagan found no authorization in the Constitution which would permit the conduct at issue in this case. Moreover, overruling Lemon in this decision is of great consequent, as in doing so the Court rejects decades of concerns about endorsement.
The majoriey read the record far too narrowly, Justice Sotomayor writes, overlooking the real community disruption caused by the petitioner.
The issue was incorrectly framed, in her view. The question is not the protection of private prayer at work but whether persona religious beliefs may be incorporated into a public school event. Sotomayor, dissent, Slip Op. 13-14.
The majority has overlooked that the public prayer at a public school comes close to being speech within the coach’s official duties, winch view would cause the speech to lose any First Amendment protections without regard to the conflict between the clauses.
Permitting an individual’s religious practice in the context described violates the Establishment Clause, particularly where public schools must maintain neutrality to fulfill their obligations.
Failure to address the tension between the constitutional clauses silently elevates one constitutional interest over another, an undesirable practice.
The idea that the perceptions of a reasonable observer ought to be considered in evaluating Establishment Clause claims ought not be so handily dismissed, for it is that very perception that has give rise to much concern in public schools. Nor should the question of coercion be dismissed, as it is not unreasonable to consider whether by their very nature public schools, in structure and administration, embody at least a modicum of coercion.