AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Texas District 13 Representative Ronny Jackson joined an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court in support of Coach Joe Kennedy in the in-progress Kennedy v. Bemerton School District case, asking the Court to hear and agree with a coach’s claim that he was fired for silently kneeling and praying after his high school’s football games.
The case, centering around Kennedy and his former school district in Washington, was filed in March 2021 and passed through the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in the school’s favor.
The brief was led by Senator James Lankford and Representative Vicky Hartzler, also signed by 14 Representatives and 12 Senators, according to Jackson’s office.
“Freedom of religion is a longstanding American principle that has defined our great country since its inception, and Coach Kennedy’s firing is a blatant attack on that sacred principle,” said Jackson on the case, “The Supreme Court must take the time to consider the facts of Coach Kennedy’s case and the implications of eroding the freedom of religion. I fully believe that, upon their review, Coach Kennedy will be vindicated because there is no situation in which the government can restrict an American’s right to choose the time and place of a private prayer.”
Kennedy v. Bremerton School District was described by court analysis website SCOTUSblog as a case seeking to decide two main issues:
- Whether a public-school employee who says a brief, quiet prayer by himself while at school and visible to students is engaged in government speech that lacks any First Amendment protection; and
- Whether, assuming that such religious expression is private and protected by the free speech and free exercise clauses, the establishment clause nevertheless compels public schools to prohibit it.
The Free Exercise Clause protects citizens’ rights to practice religion freely, so long as the practice does not conflict with “public morals” or a “compelling” governmental interest. For example, Prince v. Massachusetts in 1944 held that a state could force children to be vaccinated even if parents would not allow it for religious reasons. The Court decided that the state had a bigger interest in protecting public health and safety.
The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from “establishing” a religion, although the precise definition of “establishment” is unclear. Historically, that has been viewed as prohibiting state-sponsored churches, such as how England sponsors the Church of England. This is often decided today with the use of the “Lemon” test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971.
The “Lemon” test describes that the government can assist religion only if:
- The primary purpose of the assistance is secular,
- The assistance does not promote or inhibit religion,
- There is no “excessive entanglement” between church and state.
Historically, there have been times where the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses conflict. This conflict comes up with part of Kennedy v. Bremerton School District because the coach involved worked for a publicly funded school while praying in a situation visible to students.
In January 2019, Kennedy’s petition to the Supreme Court was denied. Since then, the district court and U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit have rejected the coach’s claims. However, in the recent case, Kennedy has asked the Supreme Court to review whether his conduct could be considered private and protected by the First Amendment despite being employed by a public school at the time.