School Prayer and State Policy: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District Explained

Aug. 2, 2022
This post adds to our series that focuses on high-profile court cases with interesting implications for national education issues. Find the rest of the posts in the series here.

Prayer in school has been a debated topic in education policy for decades and has recently been pulled back into the national spotlight following the Supreme Court decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

The case centered around a public high school football coach, Joseph Kennedy, who regularly prayed at the 50-yard line after games despite objections from Bremerton School District. The district was concerned the coach’s actions would be understood as an unconstitutional sponsorship of religion. Kennedy’s contract was not renewed, and he sued the district. As seen in recent rulings, this case required the court to grapple with both religious liberty provisions in the First Amendment: one ensuring the free exercise of religion and the other prohibiting government from making laws respecting an establishment of religion.

In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled in favor of Kennedy, arguing that his First Amendment rights were violated when the district did not rehire him. The court ruled that he was not acting as a governmental authority during his prayer, ultimately deciding that the district’s policy was not neutral toward religious expression. Kennedy’s prayers were deemed to be private action, though Justice Sotomayor’s dissent highlighted the many students and others involved in these prayers. The dissent also called attention to what the minority saw as implicit coercion in the prayers, and cited previous rulings’ prohibition of state “social pressure to enforce orthodoxy.” In the majority opinion, Justice Gorsuch highlighted an “absence of evidence of coercion” as important to their ruling with “no evidence anyone sought to persuade or force students to participate.”

This ruling indicates the majority is of the view that religious expression cannot be prohibited solely because of its religious nature. State policymakers may want to consider how this ruling could impact current or future policies related to public displays of faith.

In the last two years, several states have introduced bills related to prayer in schools or at school-sponsored events. It is important to note that prayer involving students in schools, considered in most of these examples, is distinct from the consideration in Kennedy about prayer by a staff member at a school-sponsored event.

In May 2022, a Minnesota bill entitled “Coach Kennedy’s Law” was introduced, modeled after the actions of the plaintiff in Kennedy. Though the bill failed, it would have allowed athletic staff to “designate a place and time before or after a student athletic activity for public silent prayer” that athletes and others could join if they chose to do so.

In Kentucky — which allows school boards to permit the recitation of the Christian “Lord’s prayer” in public elementary schools — current law allows school boards to hold a “moment of silence or reflection” of no more than one minute. A bill was introduced in 2022 that would have doubled the maximum amount of time for a “moment of silence or reflection”.

In Mississippi, current law allows for a “moment of quiet reflection” to be held at the beginning of each school day. A bill proposed, though not enacted, in 2022 would have amended that statute to allow moments of silence to include “nonsectarian, non-proselytizing, student-initiated prayer … in silence or audible communication for those students desiring to voluntarily participate.”

In 2021, a bill was unsuccessfully introduced in Texas that would have allowed school districts or charter schools to “provide a period of prayer and readings from the Bible each day.” Among other requirements, individuals would not be allowed to participate in, see and/or hear the prayer and Bible readings unless they signed a consent form with legal waivers, including “any constitutional claims…under the United States Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Establishment Clause”.

In Georgia, a bill introduced in 2022 would have allowed a student to lead a classroom in prayer prior to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, but the bill was not passed. The specific prayer would have been written into statute and included specific references to “Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Although none of the listed bills were ultimately enacted, they were introduced at a time prior to the Kennedy ruling. With this ruling, states may see increased policy action regarding prayer in schools or during school-sponsored activities.

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