‘Kennedy v. Bremerton’ Decision Is Yet Another Victory for Religious Freedom at the Supreme Court

The justices rejected the notion that secularism can be imposed on religious Americans as the price of allowing them to participate in their own society.

Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court on April 25 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games.
Former Bremerton High School assistant football coach Joe Kennedy answers questions after his legal case, Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, was argued before the Supreme Court on April 25 in Washington, DC. Kennedy was terminated from his job by Bremerton public school officials in 2015 after refusing to stop his on-field prayers after football games. (photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

Catholics and Americans scored another important victory in the Supreme Court Monday. By a 6-3 vote in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Court held that the termination of a high school coach for praying in public after a game was illegal.

The Supreme Court protected the right to free exercise of religion.

The school district fired Coach Kennedy just because he prayed in public. He did not call players over. He did not organize any prayer session. He merely prayed in public.

But, for the past 75 years, the Supreme Court has fundamentally misread the “no establishment” clause of the First Amendment to put it at loggerheads with free exercise. The Court moved from understanding the amendment as outlawing the establishment of a particular religion to the much broader — and not Constitutionally mandated (except in the minds of some justices) — idea that religion itself must be shunted off the public square, especially from public schools. According to this line of thinking, impressionable young minds incapable of critical thinking may be fooled into thinking the government endorses religion if it recognizes that religion is and has been part of our social fabric. (On the other hand, some folks think those impressionable young minds are apparently sufficiently critical to decide on self-mutilation, aka “gender therapy,” without even parental awareness of those thoughts.)

Treating the recognition of religion as such as an “establishment” stands the First Amendment on its head. An amendment designed to protect Americans’ religious freedom has been transmogrified into a protection of Americans from religion, suggesting that religion somehow taints whatever it touches. That was Maine’s logic when it sought to defend its no-tuition-reimbursement-to-“sectarian”-secondary schools rule for kids living in places where there was no other school: the presence of religious elements in the curriculum in addition to the rest of the curriculum satisfying the state’s requirements for compulsory school attendance somehow made those schools second-rate. The Supreme Court last week rejected that logic.

The Washington school district contended that, as a teacher, Kennedy was exercising an impermissible (probably baneful) influence on students so, after seven years of having prayed, the school district told him to stop. Kennedy insisted he had free exercise of religion and free speech rights which did not cease to exist as a result of his employment, and refused. The school district fired him. The Supreme Court declared the firing illegal.

Comments on the case, as well as the dissenting opinion of Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer, raised the bugaboo of undermining the “wall of separation” between Church and state. No doubt the mythology will be sown that the current Court is tearing down fundamental Constitutional “rights” in the name of its “extremist agenda.” 

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The First Amendment protects religion and religious freedom. It was not designed to insulate a society from the phenomenon of religion, to pretend that Americans are areligious, or to demand that — in the words of the late Richard John Neuhaus — they strip themselves of their religion as the price of entering a “naked public square.” That is not democracy. That is a parody of democracy whose cramped admission ticket is set by secularists who push their faith as the opposite of religion when, in fact, it is their religion. This sleight-of-hand pretends that the agnosticism or atheism of some people is not an act of faith and so can be imposed on a majority of Americans who do not share that view as the price of allowing them to participate in their own society.

The Supreme Court is happily pushing back on this sham.

Incidentally, “wall of separation” appears nowhere in the Constitution. It was a notion articulated by Thomas Jefferson (who was not part of the framing of the Constitution) 20 years after the fact in a letter he wrote to a Baptist parish in Danbury, Connecticut, when they were in the midst of a partisan fight in the Nutmeg State over how its state constitution should be reframed in the light of its Puritan past. It might be an interesting notion, but it isn’t in the Constitution.

The Court will undoubtedly be packing up for the summer, to return on the first Monday of October, Oct. 3. All in all, it’s been a good term for religious freedom. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. And don’t let anybody pretend it’s somehow “anti-American.” The people who established the United States — the Puritans, Roger Williams, William Penn, the Calverts — regardless of how they understood Church/state to be related, never intended to treat religion as something to be hidden under a bushel basket. 

The Court has lifted the bushel — and called the bluff on the secularism shell game.

U.S. Supreme Court Building

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