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In the case of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, 597 U.S. ____ (2022), the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government retaliation because the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.

Here, a high school football coach was fired by the school district after kneeling for a personal prayer at the center of the field after football games while students were still on the sidelines and spectators were still in the stands. The coach challenged the school district’s actions, arguing that they violated his First Amendment Freedoms of Speech and Religion. The Supreme Court agreed with the coach.

In support of its decision, the Supreme Court first explained that the coach sought to engage in a sincerely motivated religious exercise, and by forbidding this practice the school district engaged in a policy that was neither “neutral” nor “generally applicable.” The Supreme Court noted that the coach was disciplined for persisting in his quiet personal prayer by the school district’s own admission. Next, the Supreme Court considered whether the coach offered his prayers in his capacity as a private city, or whether the prayers amounted to governmental speech attributable to the school district. Because he was not engaged in speech “ordinarily within the scope” of his duties as a coach – such as instructing players, discussing strategy, encouraging better on-field performance, or engaging in any other speech the school district paid him to produce as a coach – the Supreme Court found that the coach’s prayers represented his own private speech. The Supreme Court further explained that school districts do not have a duty to suppress religious observances because the Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Also, the Supreme Court notes, suppressing any visible religious conduct would undermine the tradition in which “learning how to toleration diverse expressive activities has always been part of learning how to live in a pluralistic society.”

To read this case, click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and the McGown & Markling Team.

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always-changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.


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