Kennedy v Bremerton School District Ruling and Prayer In School

Read MBM Law’s updated insight to U.S. Secretary of Education’s Guidance on Addressing Prayer & Religious Expression in Public Schools (May 2023).

On June 27, 2022, the United States Supreme Court in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, No. 21-418 found in favor of a high school assistant football coach who was fired for praying following the expiration of the game clock. Joseph Kennedy was placed on leave and his annual contract was not renewed after he refused to follow the school district’s directive to offer his prayers at a secluded location and not on the field following football games.

The federal and state education laws are constantly changing. If your school district needs legal guidance, contact the lawyers of MBM Law to speak with experienced education attorneys.

Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Overview

Mr. Kennedy explained that he would regularly kneel on the fifty-yard line and bow his head to give a prayer of thanks for the game, his players, and the opposition. The prayers at issue occurred on district property and while Coach Kennedy was in his coaching attire. Mr. Kennedy’s prayer did not involve leading others in prayer and did not occur before a captive audience. The Court found it of importance that the other coaches were permitted to exercise their free speech on any secular topic following the game to text, take phone calls and socialize in the stands. And that Coach Kennedy’s choice to invoke a private prayer should be extended the same protections as the secular speech.

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The Supreme Court: Kennedy vs Bremerton School District Decision

As a public employee, the Court reasoned that the prayers did not occur within the scope of Coach Kennedy’s duties and that he was not seeking to convey a government-created message. Instead, the Supreme Court found he was acting as a private citizen and that he had the First Amendment rights of free speech and free exercise to do so.

First Amendment rights in public school districts can be the subject of many legal battles. Contact MBM Law for a consultation from an experienced education law team.

Public School District and Private Speech

Unfortunately, for public school districts, the Supreme Court outlined a general game plan but failed to provide a solid playbook for First Amendment issues. The inquiry of when speech of a public employee at a district-sponsored event is attributable to the district and thus subject to the control of the public employer depends on extremely specific factual circumstances. The public employer must remain content-neutral and if the public employer does not promote or encourage the speech, the public employer is not speaking and cannot be held to endorse the content of private speech.

First Amendment: Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses

The Court held that the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in personal religious observance from government reprisal. The 6-3 decision and opinion written by Justice Gorsuch reject the suggestion that any visible religious conduct by a teacher or coach should be deemed -without more-as a matter of law an impermissible entanglement of government and religion. “A government entity’s concerns about phantom constitutional violations do not justify actual violations of an individual’s First Amendment rights.”

MBM education lawyers in Pittsburgh work closely with school district administrators and boards to ensure that the identified goals for their community are met. If you are concerned with how Kennedy vs the Bremerton School District will affect your establishment then call MBM Law.

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The Future of the Establishment Clause and Public School Districts

We understand the rules that an Establishment Clause violation does not automatically follow whenever a public school fails to censor private religious speech. The Bremerton School District’s failure occurred in its belief that it was compelled to purge private prayer from the school’s football games. It is not true that any religious conduct by a teacher or a coach is deemed as a matter of law an unacceptable violation of the Establishment Clause. Schools are not required to be hostile to religion but to have a neutral respect for private expressions of religion.

The Importance of School Districts Choosing the Right Education Lawyers

Speech attributable to a public employer depends on the level of control of the content and whether the speech itself is part of their job duties—not simply on whether the speech takes place during working hours or on government property.

It is important to choose the right education attorneys with the experience and understanding of the nuanced education law.

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Choose MBM Law Education Attorneys

MBM Law’s attorneys stay current on decisions such as Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Our education lawyers stay up-to-date on leading developments in school law. The experienced education attorneys of MBM Law provide legal advice on a wide range of school-related topics to school boards, administrators, teachers, and other school employees on a daily basis.

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Christina L. Lane

Christina Lane is an accomplished school, municipal, labor and employment attorney representing public sector employers. She has extensive knowledge and experience with Title IX and often serves as a third-party investigator.