fbpx
Articles

Explainer: Supreme Court strengthens religious expression for teachers and coaches

/
June 27, 2022

On June 27, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal.” This is an important decision for religious expression, especially for teachers and coaches’ ability to privately express their religious belief while working for schools.

Justice Gorsuch delivered the opinion of the court, with Justices Roberts, Thomas, Alito and Barrett joining. Justice Kavanaugh also joined the majority opinion, except as to Part III–B. Justices Thomas and Alito filed concurring opinions. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, in which Breyer and Kagan joined.

What is this case about?

Coach Kennedy, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, had a tradition of kneeling and quietly praying at the 50-yard line after football games. Kennedy was suspended by Bremerton High School, and later fired because of his private prayers. In fact, the “District Court found that the ‘sole reason’ for the District’s decision to suspend Mr. Kennedy was its perceived ‘risk of constitutional liability’ under the Establishment Clause for his ‘religious conduct’ after three games.” He filed a lawsuit against the school district, arguing that the school’s actions violated both the First Amendment’s Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses. 

Our brief to the court stated that, “Coach Kennedy . . . acted after a game, without directing his speech or conduct toward any particular audience, without anyone in compulsory attendance, without his inviting anyone, and on an outdoor field open to the entire public (not just students and other school employees).” It goes on to state, “this was a private gathering of like-minded individuals, and that gathering was itself shielded by the First Amendment protections of religion, speech, and assembly.”

Kennedy was simply exercising his constitutional right to free exercise and free speech. The Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment “protects religious exercises and the Free Speech Clause provides overlapping protection for expressive religious activities.” Both of these Constitutional protections were violated in this case.

The Lemon Test

In addition to ruling specifically for Coach Kennedy, the court in this decision also officially replaced the Lemon Test, a three-part test from a 1971 ruling that determined when a law was in violation of the Establishment Clause. As the opinion notes,“The Lemon approach called for an examination of a law’s purposes, effects, and potential for entanglement with religion. In time, that approach also came to involve estimations about whether a ‘reasonable observer’ would consider the government’s challenged action an ‘endorsement’ of religion.”

In recent years, the court has increasingly disfavored the Lemon Test. Justice Gorsuch states that due to “the apparent ‘shortcomings’ associated with Lemon’s ‘ambitiou[s],’ abstract, and ahistorical approach to the Establishment Clause—this Court long ago abandoned Lemon and its endorsement test offshoot.” Further, “the Court has explained that these tests ‘invited chaos’ in lower courts, led to ‘differing results’ in materially identical cases, and created a ‘minefield’ for legislators.”

Despite the previous abandonment of this test, the court had not officially replaced Lemon with a new standard, leaving a void of confusion for lower courts and legislators. However, in this decision, the court provided needed clarity and ruled that “in place of Lemon and the endorsement test . . . the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’”

The Lemon Test restricted religious expression, and the justices rightly ended this  “ahistorical” standard.

How did the ERLC engage this case?

The ERLC was involved with briefs at the petition for certiorari stage and before the Supreme Court on the merits. The brief urged the high court to accept the case and reverse the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that Kennedy’s act of praying—ultimately joined by some players—constituted a government establishment of religion.

In 2018, ERLC joined eight other groups in a brief that called for Supreme Court review and repudiation of the Ninth Circuit in the case, but the justices declined to grant the request at the time. The case returned to federal court and worked its way back through the judicial system. The brief the ERLC signed argued that, 

. . . the school should have allowed the exercise of the constitutional freedoms to speak, pray, and assemble. It cannot convert its improper halting of such practices into a legal virtue by resorting to the Establishment Clause, as that clause certainly did not proscribe the unassisted, privately initiated exercise of religion by Coach Kennedy.

The Establishment Clause does not require public schools to be policed as religion-free zones, and a reasonable, objective person understands that teachers can act in private capacities, even while on school grounds and even during school hours. When teachers do so, their freedoms are not to be curtailed, and they are not to be punished.

The ERLC will always protect religious freedom and religious expression, before the courts, Congress and the administration.

Why does this decision matter? 

This decision strengthens religious expression for teachers, coaches, and people living out their faith in the public square. As the majority opinion states, the Free Exercise clause “protects not only the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly. It does perhaps its most important work by protecting the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through “the performance of (or abstention from) physical acts.” As the court rightly acknowledged, the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech clause are not separate units, but rather appear in the same sentence of the same Amendment.” Our First Amendment rights travel together, and must be equally honored and protected.

As ERLC’s acting president, Brent Leatherwood said,

“As any Christian knows, our faith is deeply personal and rightly shapes every aspect of our lives. We live out our faith in any number of ways, both privately and publicly. Today’s case centered on the latter and the Supreme Court rightly determined that an individual employed by a school does not forfeit his or her constitutional right to free expression simply by entering ‘the schoolhouse gate’ or, as it were in this case, the field of play.

“Moreover, today’s decision reaffirms another aspect of constitutional law: Our First Amendment rights travel together. We, and many others, have long held that religious liberty is our nation’s first freedom and that it bolsters and strengthens other foundational rights. The Court today strengthened this perspective by writing that the clauses of free expression, establishment and free speech are all complementary. If it were not already clear enough, this Court views religious liberty as a bedrock right in our free republic.”

This case is another victory in a long line of jurisprudence that further expands Americans’ robust rights of religious expression. Across our convention of churches, faithful Southern Baptists can be found working in the public education sector. As Christians, Scripture calls us to do “all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). This decision bolsters believers’ ability to do this in the public square without fear of repercussions.

Photo Attribution:

Win McNamee / Getty Staff

Policy Staff

The policy staff works on behalf of the Southern Baptist interests in the ERLC's Washington, D.C., office, the Leland House. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24