“Congressshall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
- First Amendment, United States Constitution
There are two parts to First Amendment religious freedom. The part before the comma is
the Establishment Clause. Originally, most scholars think it just meant the federal
government couldn’t establish an official religion for the nation. Over time, it has been
interpreted more broadly to mean the government can’t promote any specific religion, or
religion in general. This gets tricky. It’s why there can be a Christmas tree in front of City
Hall in December, but not a Nativity Scene. A Christmas tree, while certainly a Christian
symbol, is widely seen by many as more of a generic holiday decoration while a Nativity
Scene is a depiction of a specific event in the Gospel of Luke, part of the Christian New
The part after the comma is the Free Exercise Clause, and means the government can’t
interfere with a person’s right to practice their religion in most cases. This can also get
tricky. Courts have ruled that legitimate practitioners of certain indigenous American
religions can use peyote – an illegal Schedule I controlled substance – in religious
ceremonies. On the other hand, you can’t practice human sacrifice, no matter how
sincerely you might believe in it.
Joseph Kennedy was a football coach at Bremerton High School. He prayed at midfield
after each game – first alone, but later with players and even some members of the
opposing team joining him. After a scene that the school district describes as chaotic, with
spectators and reporters knocking down members of the band in an effort to join Kennedy
at midfield, the school district told him that his prayers violated the district’s policy and
offered him other options to pray – for example, after the crowd had left. Kennedy
continued to pray at games, prompting the district to place him on administrative leave
and, eventually, decline to renew his contract for the following season.
On the one hand, Kennedy – by all accounts – did this on his own, and those who joined him
did so voluntarily. On the other hand, this was a public display of religion led by a
government employee on a field owned and operated by the taxpayers in conjunction with
a government-sponsored sporting event.
Where should we draw the line between prohibiting the government from “establishing”
religion and a policy that would unconstitutionally interfere with a person’s free exercise
of their religious faith?
Find the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Write
our usual 2 page double spaced essay. Explain what the majority decided and why. Explain
what a dissenting opinion is, and why Justice Sotomayor wrote one to disagree with her
colleagues in this case. Finally, if you were on the U.S. Supreme Court, how would you rule
in this case and why?