In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court earlier this week affirmed Coach Kennedy’s right to silently pray in public after high school football games in Kennedy v. Bremerton School Board.
For years, Kennedy would pray very briefly by himself following football games. At one point, students became curious about what he was doing. When asked if they could join, he told them it was a free country, and they could do what they wanted. As time went on, more and more students and even coaches from other teams joined in.
After nearly half the team began to participate in these short prayers, the school told him he could no longer pray publicly. Kennedy initially obeyed the order, but later believed it violated his freedoms of speech and religion. He felt responsible to thank God for the games in that way. So, he continued to pray; and as a result, lost his job.
WFA signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the U.S. Supreme Court in order to support Coach Kennedy and urge the court to protect religious freedom. The brief argued that the First Amendment was expressly written to protect our right to exercise our religion in just such situations as Coach Kennedy did.
Thankfully, the high court upheld Coach K’s right to freely live out his faith in public.
“The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in the 6-3 majority opinion, adding that the Constitution “neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”
The court rejected the school district’s argument that the coach’s prayers were “coercive” of the players. The decision also corrects the widespread misconception that religious speech and actions must be suppressed to avoid the First Amendment’s ban on the “establishment of religion.”
“Both the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect expressions like Mr. Kennedy’s,” Gorsuch wrote in the majority opinion. “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.”
As the high court claims, our constitution does not require us to abandon our religious traditions and the Establishment Clause does not require schools to fire a coach like Joseph Kennedy.
“Today, the Supreme Court reaffirmed a long-standing principle, correctly ruling that teachers and other school employees do not surrender their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate,” Sarah Parshall Perry, a senior legal fellow for The Heritage Foundation, said in a statement.
This is a monumental victory for religious freedom throughout the United States. It serves to protect teachers who bow their heads to give thanks during lunch in the cafeteria, or school employees who wear a cross or religious symbol, as the opinion specifically mentions.
It will not only help preserve a free and diverse society, but also uphold human dignity, which is inseparable from the freedom to express one’s deeply held beliefs.
The Wisconsin Superintendent of Public Instruction, who is now our governor, refused to grant an independent Catholic school transportation benefits unless it agreed to not call itself “Catholic.” Now the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) is requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court review the case to determine whether the superintendent violated the First Amendment.
Wisconsin provides funding to private schools as long as there is not overlapping attendance between multiple private schools that are affiliated with the same sponsor. The Department of Public Instruction denied students at St. Augustine transportation because there is another Catholic school in the area. St. Augustine, however, is independent and not affiliated with Archdiocese, rendering Evers’ decision unlawful.
WILL previously won a lawsuit when an appeal court ruled that Tony Evers did break the law. However, the court did not address the constitutional question regarding religious liberty.
It’s clear that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment prohibits Evers from giving St. Augustine school this ultimatum.
“The critical constitutional questions at the heart of this case remain unresolved,” said Anthony LoCoco, deputy counsel for WILL. “Government bureaucrats cannot withhold a benefit by imposing their own religious definitions on institutions like St. Augustine School.”
Government officials have been hostile toward private and religious schools in Wisconsin and refused transportation funding for years, suggesting that their discrimination is intentional.
“I do think one takeaway from this case is just how far government officials are willing to go in fights against parents and families in private schools. We’ve been at this now for six years, and we’ve been to the Supreme Court twice now, and they’re still unwilling to pay this transportation aid,” LoCoco continued. “The ordinary Wisconsin family cannot afford six years of litigation just to get their kids to school.”
The court’s decision will impact not just Catholics, but people of all faith backgrounds. Any institution that identifies with a religion could be denied funding or discriminated against if the court sides with Evers’ decision. If institutions must decide between professing their faith and receiving funding to keep their operations running, they do not truly have religious liberty.
Every institution and every individual must be free to express their faith and identify with a religion, without contingencies. This is the very principle that our country was founded on. “The constitutional freedom of religion is the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights,” wrote Thomas Jefferson.
Any effort to repress this freedom is an attack on the very foundation of America.
Further, any refusal to allow religious liberty is also an attack on human dignity. Our ability to contemplate the transcendent, search for Truth, and profess our faith is bound to our humanity.
Join Wisconsin Family Action in prayer that the US Supreme Court establishes justice and protects human dignity by upholding religious liberty in Wisconsin, and use your voice to talk to your neighbors about this continued assault on religious freedom right here in our own backyards.
National Religious Freedom Day is this Sunday, January 16th. This day was established to celebrate our ability to freely exercise our religious liberty since our country’s inception. Unfortunately, this freedom is now under attack in America, even from our own government. Between tyrannical vaccine mandates and other discriminatory practices, our rights have been severely compromised. We are hopeful, however, that the US Supreme Court will make sound decisions in a couple of critical religious freedom cases.
Ironically, just two days after National Religious Freedom Day, on January 18, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Shurtleff v. Boston. The question at hand is whether the City of Boston violated a Christian organization’s right to free speech by disallowing Camp Constitution to temporarily raise its flag on the City Hall flagpoles. The City had previously allowed private organizations to raise 284 flags. The Commissioner of Boston’s Property Management Department claimed that the City’s policy was to avoid flying religious flags in adherence to the First Amendment’s prohibition of government-established religion. Religious freedom, however, was never meant to be interpreted as shielding the public from any mention of religion.
Generally, the government is supposed to be viewpoint neutral, which means if the flag represents the speech of Camp Constitution, then the Camp and religious freedom should prevail. If the court determines that the flags on the flagpole represent the City of Boston’s speech, then the outcome may be different. We are hopeful the Court will recognize and uphold Camp Constitution’s right to free speech.
Wisconsin Family Action is actively fighting for religious liberty. Just last week, we signed onto an amicus brief filed to the US Supreme Court with regard to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) nationwide vaccine mandate. The brief states that unelected administrative agencies such as OSHA tend to neglect religious freedom by viewing it as “an afterthought, an inconvenience that stands in the way of their desired policy.” Religious liberty is foundational to our nation – not an afterthought.
Further, the brief notes that OSHA bypassed the traditional lawmaking process through state legislatures. Unaccountable government agencies circumvent legislatures too often, as OSHA has done here. Ultimately, OSHA’s mandate causes “indirect coercion [that] contradicts fundamental religious autonomy principles.” The Court heard oral arguments for this case this past Friday, January 7th, and we are now awaiting their decision.
Religious freedom must be non-negotiable. This right is a bedrock of our country and a necessity for human flourishing. On Religious Freedom Sunday, let’s pray for the preservation of this essential right in the United States. Putting our prayer and faith to action, we must also continue doing everything we can in the culture and in every level of government to stand up, show up, and speak up for our “First Freedom.”