25 Apr 2022 Justices Consider Right to Pray
Coach Joe Kennedy is finally getting his day in court – the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome could be a major victory for the right of people to exercise their faith in public places.
The justices are hearing arguments on April 25 in the case of Joseph A. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Coach Kennedy, a high school football coach, was fired because he prayed at the 50-yard line of the public school’s field after games. The reason for his dismissal was allegedly “engaging in demonstrative religious activity” while “on duty.”
Project 21 helped get the case over the goal line and in front of the justices with an amici curiae (“friend of the court”) legal brief that asked for the case to be heard. Project 21 was a co-amici on a brief filed by Advancing American Freedom – the organization founded by former vice president Mike Pence – and the Young America’s Foundation.
“The separation of church and state shouldn’t mean a person of faith must hide that faith while on the job. But that is exactly what will happen if even small public expressions are deemed grounds for dismissal. I fear what will be next,” noted Donna Jackson, Project 21’s director of membership development. “Will teachers be dismissed for accurately teaching black history? Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all expressed that religious conviction was a motivating factor in their quest for freedom. Are we now to expunge their historical accounts out of fear that they might promote religious expressions?”
The brief that Project 21 joined called a lower court ruling against Coach Kennedy “flat wrong,” adding that it was “absurd to label an act of obvious personal gratitude and humility governmental speech that is prohibited by the Constitution” and that Americans’ personal speech cannot violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause “simply because the public can see them.”
“Teachers and students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” said Project 21 member Whitley Yates. “As a law student, I learned this by reviewing Tinker v. Des Moines. Teachers should be able to exercise such religious freedoms without infringement. Schools have been on a downward trajectory of indoctrination. From eliminating parents’ rights to advocating for kindergarten students to learn about gender identity and sexual orientation, the mere fact that they are on a mission to eliminate coaches’ or teachers’ ability to pray should sound alarms for parents around the nation.”
Project 21’s brief also stated that the lower court ruling threatens the First Amendment rights of public employees while they are at work and when they are visible to the public. It cited examples from the hypothetical to the historical to make that case – including a teacher wanting to pray before eating lunch, and President Joe Biden closing remarks on August 26, 2021 by saying: “May God bless you all and may God protect the troops and all those standing watch for America.”
“I will be praying for Coach Kennedy this morning. This case should be open and shut. The state violated Coach Kennedy’s First Amendment right to freely exercise his faith,” said Project 21 member Steven Mosley. “The coach has a right to pray. He has a right to freely exercise his faith. All people do. They don’t lose their First Amendment rights when they work for the state. Religious liberty should be celebrated and not punished.”
The brief also asserted that the lower court misapplied the Establishment Clause meant to stop state-established religion, arguing that it was “indisputably clear” that the coach’s prayers were personal, and the school’s opposition to them confirmed he was not acting as a public official. The ruling’s assertion that publicity made this an Establishment Clause issue was erroneous, claimed the brief, because “[t]he publicity was caused by the inappropriate ban, not by Coach Kennedy.”
“Whether you are a Christian or not, you should stand for the First Amendment,” Steven added. “The First Amendment protects our right to free speech, freedom of assembly, free press, the right to freely exercise one’s faith and the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Six years ago, the state prohibited Coach Kennedy’s right to pray. Let’s pray now that God liberally gives the Supreme Court wisdom to right this wrong.”