Our Constitution enumerates two important principles: First, that a citizen has the freedom to exercise his or her religion. Second, that the government may not establish, impose, or favor any one religion on its citizenry. The Court must balance these two competing principles.
In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Lee v. Weisman that it was unconstitutional for a public school in Rhode Island to have a member of the clergy deliver a prayer at a graduation ceremony. The Court held that this violated the second principle above since those present at the ceremony would be coerced to join in the prayer. This decision raised the question: in what way can a person exercise his or her religion in public without it being coercive?
On June 27, 2022, the Supreme Court ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a school district could not bar a high school football coach from praying publicly on the field after a game. Quoting Lee extensively, the opinion argued that Mr. Kennedy’s act, while public, was in no way coercive. The court noted that people may be offended by public expressions of prayer, but offense is not coercion. The school district, meanwhile, tried to argue that any visible religious conduct by a teacher or coach should be deemed coercive and therefore prohibited.
Interpretations of the second principle like those of Bremerton School District would exclude any public exercise of religion. The Court’s ruling provides a balance between enabling the public exercise of religion and preventing religious coercion.
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