“The establishment clause provides simply that there can be no law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It does not explain what an “establishment of religion” is. Nor does it lay out in any detail when the government can and cannot provide benefits to a religious institution.
Armed only with this vague text, the Supreme Court has offered several competing explanations for why the establishment clause exists and what it was intended to prevent. At times, the Court has said that it exists to prevent the government from coercing nonbelievers into acts of devotion they find objectionable. At other times, the Court has described the establishment clause as a nod to pluralism — something that allows many religious traditions to thrive in the United States by forbidding the government from taking sides in religious debates.
Everson was rooted in the first of these two rationales, the belief that the government may not coerce others into religious exercise. As Justice Hugo Black wrote in that case, the clause is intended to universalize a Virginia statute, authored by Thomas Jefferson, which provided that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
Everson read this prohibition on coerced religious activity expansively to include not just direct use of force against nonbelievers, but also the use of taxes collected from the general public to fund religion. As Black wrote, “individual religious liberty could be achieved best under a government which was stripped of all power to tax, to support, or otherwise to assist any or all religions, or to interfere with the beliefs of any religious individual or group.””
“Fifteen years later, in Engel v. Vitale (1962), Black laid out a different theory of why the establishment clause exists.
In Engel, the Court struck down a school district’s policy of requiring teachers to begin each school day by reciting a prayer authored by the school board. “One of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way,” Black warned, “lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious services.”
The central idea animating Engel was that, if the government is allowed to write prayers or otherwise put its seal of approval on particular religious practices, then US politics will inevitably be consumed by religious believers from competing faiths, all lobbying elected officials to make sure that their religion receives the government’s blessing.
The Court reached this conclusion after considering 16th-century English history, when Parliament approved a Book of Common Prayer that “set out in minute detail the accepted form and content of prayer and other religious ceremonies to be used in the established, tax-supported Church of England.” This led to perpetual lobbying, and frequent strife, over just what prayers the government should endorse and which ones it should reject. Powerful religious groups “struggled among themselves to impress their particular views upon the Government,” while less powerful religious believers literally fled the country — many of them becoming early American colonists.
According to Engel, the First Amendment was drafted in large part to prevent this kind of strife among religious factions from occurring in the United States. The founding generation, Black wrote, was not willing “to let the content of their prayers and their privilege of praying whenever they pleased be influenced by the ballot box.”
Thus, while Everson read the establishment clause as a shield against the government coercing nonbelievers into participating in religion, Engel saw it more as a safeguard for pluralism. The idea behind the later decision was that, for multiple faith traditions to coexist peacefully in the United States, the government had to be hyper-cautious about picking favorites among them.
Of course, these two theories of the establishment clause are not mutually exclusive”
” before the Roberts Court started dismantling the establishment clause’s safeguards, the Court recognized two values implicit in this clause: 1) the right to be free from coerced religious activity, and 2) the right to live in a pluralistic society where the government does not favor one person’s religion over the other. The right against coercion extended not just to direct pressure by the state, but also to more subtle forms of pressure such as a public school ceremony that effectively forces a student to choose between participating in a prayer or risking ostracizing themselves from their classmates. Meanwhile, the pluralistic right prevented the government from endorsing a particular religious viewpoint above others.
All of that went by the wayside, however, in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022).”
“Bremerton is a mystifying decision, in part because the six Republican-appointed justices in the majority took great liberties with the case’s facts. It involved a high school football coach who would pray at the 50-yard line following games — in full view of students, players, and spectators, and sometimes surrounded by many of them as he was praying. There are photographs of crowds surrounding this coach as he prayed, some of which were included in Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent.
Yet Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote the Court’s opinion, falsely claimed that this coach only wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer.””
“while the Bremerton opinion is not a model of clarity, two lessons can be extracted from it. One is that the ban on government endorsements of religion — the mechanism the Court used to ensure that a plurality of faiths would thrive in the United States — is now dead. The other is that, while the Court still recognizes that some forms of government coercion into religious behavior are not allowed, its Republican majority appears eager to narrow the definition of “coercion.” There may even be five votes for Scalia’s position — that the government may actively promote religion so long as it does not use force or the threat of penalty to do so.”
“One form of coercion that the current Court permits is the government may now take taxes from a nonbeliever — taxes that the nonbeliever must pay to avoid criminal sanctions — and use them to fund religious education.”
“Read together, the Roberts Court’s establishment clause cases suggest that the Court probably will not neutralize this clause altogether. But they have already neutralized many of its modern applications, and they appear likely to endorse government behavior that would not have been tolerated even in the recent past.”
“Gorsuch’s opinion presents Kennedy as “engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance.” Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent, writes that this characterization is wrong, and Gorsuch’s description essentially downplays any potential coercive impacts of the prayer:
“To the degree the Court portrays petitioner Joseph Kennedy’s prayers as private and quiet, it misconstrues the facts. The record reveals that Kennedy had a longstanding practice of conducting demonstrative prayers on the 50-yard line of the football field. Kennedy consistently invited others to join his prayers and for years led student athletes in prayer at the same time and location. The Court ignores this history”.
Sotomayor’s dissent includes actual embedded photographs of the prayers on the 50-yard line with the coach surrounded by players, showing that this isn’t some quiet personal observance. He sought out media coverage for his prayers. The school district noted that despite Kennedy’s insistence that he wasn’t inviting others to pray with him, he had, in fact, done so on many previous occasions. The school district’s messaging to Kennedy was consistent in that it held no objection to his religious beliefs or even to him praying while on duty as long as it didn’t interfere with his job or suggest that the school endorsed his religion. In short, it seemed as though the school district was genuinely concerned that Kennedy’s behavior would be seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause if they didn’t clearly communicate established limits on what Kennedy was allowed to do.
She notes that Kennedy ignored attempts by the school district to try to come to some accommodation and instead turned to the press and made a big spectacle out of the prayers. Parents told the school district that their children participated in the prayers “solely to avoid separating themselves from the rest of the team.”
Sotomayor sees a constitutional violation in this case, but it’s not Kennedy’s rights that were violated:
“Properly understood, this case is not about the limits on an individual’s ability to engage in private prayer at work. This case is about whether a school district is required to allow one of its employees to incorporate a public, communicative display of the employee’s personal religious beliefs into a school event, where that display is recognizable as part of a longstanding practice of the employee ministering religion to students as the public watched. A school district is not required to permit such conduct; in fact, the Establishment Clause prohibits it from doing so.”
“The Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on Monday, overruling a 1971 case laying out how the government must keep its distance from religion.
But Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion for himself and his fellow Republican appointees relies on a bizarre misrepresentation of the case’s facts. He repeatedly claims that Joseph Kennedy, a former public school football coach at Bremerton High School in Washington state who ostentatiously prayed at the 50-yard line following football games — often joined by his players, members of the opposing team, and members of the general public — “offered his prayers quietly while his students were otherwise occupied.”
(Justice Brett Kavanaugh did not join a brief section of Gorsuch’s opinion concerning the Constitution’s free speech protections, but Gorsuch otherwise spoke for the Court’s entire Republican majority.)
Because Gorsuch misrepresents the facts of this case, it’s hard to assess many of its implications.
The Court’s decision to explicitly overrule Lemon v. Kurtzman, the 1971 decision that previously governed cases involving the Constitution’s language prohibiting “an establishment of religion,” has obvious implications for future lawsuits: Lower court judges will no longer apply Lemon’s framework to establishment clause cases.
But it’s not clear how those lower court judges should now navigate questions about the separation of church and state. Although the Court overrules Lemon, it does not announce a fleshed-out test that will replace Lemon. Instead, Kennedy announces a vague new rule that “the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by ‘reference to historical practices and understandings.’”
Moreover, because Gorsuch’s opinion relies so heavily on false facts, the Court does not actually decide what the Constitution has to say about a coach who ostentatiously prays in the presence of students and the public. Instead, it decides a fabricated case about a coach who merely engaged in “private” and “quiet” prayer.
If the facts of Kennedy actually resembled the made-up facts laid out in Gorsuch’s opinion, then Kennedy would have reached the correct result. Even under Lemon, a public school employee is typically permitted to quietly pray while they are not actively engaged with students.
Gorsuch’s opinion, however, describes a very different case than the one that was actually before the Court.”
“In the real case that was actually before the Supreme Court, Coach Kennedy incorporated “motivational” prayers into his coaching. Eventually, these prayers matured into public, after-game sessions, where both Kennedy’s players and players on the other team would kneel around Kennedy as he held up helmets from both teams and led students in prayer.
After games, Kennedy would also walk out to the 50-yard line, where he would kneel and pray in front of students and spectators. Initially, he did so alone, but after a few games students started to join him — eventually, a majority of his players did so. One parent complained to the school district that his son “felt compelled to participate,” despite being an atheist, because the student feared “he wouldn’t get to play as much if he didn’t participate.”
When the Bremerton school district learned of Kennedy’s behavior, it told him to knock it off — though it did offer to accommodate Kennedy if he wanted to pray when he wasn’t surrounded by students and spectators. And Kennedy did end some of his most extravagant behavior, such as the prayer sessions where he held up the helmets while surrounded by kneeling students.
But Kennedy also went on a media tour, presenting himself as a coach who “made a commitment with God” to outlets ranging from local newspapers to Good Morning America. And Kennedy’s lawyer informed the school district that the coach would resume praying at the 50-yard line immediately after games.
At the next game following this tour, coaches, players, and members of the public mobbed the field when Kennedy knelt to pray. A federal appeals court described this mob as a “stampede,” and the school principal said that he “saw people fall” and that, due to the crush of people, the district was unable “to keep kids safe.” Members of the school’s marching band were knocked over by the crowds.
And, contrary to Gorsuch’s repeated claims that Kennedy only wanted to offer a “short, private, personal prayer,” Kennedy was surrounded by players, reporters, and members of the public when he conducted his prayer session after that game. We know this because Justice Sonia Sotomayor includes a picture of the scene in her dissenting opinion.
Gorsuch dismisses this photographic evidence by claiming that “not a single Bremerton student joined Mr. Kennedy’s quiet prayers” after this game — he claims that the players depicted in this photograph are “from the opposing team.”
Whether those players are from the Bremerton school district or not, that doesn’t change the fact that Kennedy engaged in very public prayer sessions, and did so while acting as an official representative of a public school. Nor does it change the fact that, after he was ordered to cease this activity, Kennedy went on a media tour that seemed designed to turn his supposedly “quiet prayers” into a public political spectacle, a spectacle that both players and spectators eagerly participated in.”
“if the facts of this case resembled the false facts laid out in Gorsuch’s opinion, then Gorsuch would have a point. Public school employees may engage in private acts of devotion, such as saying a prayer over their lunch in a school cafeteria while they are on the job.
But there’s nothing private about a school employee conducting a media tour touting his plans to pray at the 50-yard line of a football field immediately after a game. There is nothing private about the coach carrying out that plan — especially when he does so surrounded by kneeling players, cameras, and members of the public.”
“Kennedy will no doubt inspire other teachers and coaches to behave similarly to Coach Kennedy, but those teachers and coaches will do so at their own peril. Gorsuch’s opinion doesn’t weigh whether a coach is allowed to do what Kennedy actually did. That remains an open question, because the Court did not actually decide that case.”
“Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority in the case, which split the court cleanly along ideological lines. Roberts said the state’s interest in avoiding concerns about establishment of religion did not justify the policy that effectively blocked parents directing funding to religious schools.
“A neutral benefit program in which public funds flow to religious organizations through the independent choices of private benefit recipients does not offend the Establishment Clause,” Roberts wrote. “A State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”
Under the Maine “tuitioning” program the court struck down on Tuesday, local governments lacking the population to run schools at a certain grade level typically pay for students to be educated at public or private schools of their choice. But, to avoid government funds being used for religious purposes, since 1981 the program has refused to pay for schools providing religious education.
In a 2020 decision on an educational aid program out of Montana, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that states could not exclude families or schools from student aid programs simply because the schools were backed by religious institutions.
However, that decision left open the question of whether states could block the use of their funds for explicitly religious or “sectarian” classes.
But in the case decided Tuesday, Roberts explicitly rejected Maine’ arguments that it was only targeting religious teaching and not whether a school was run by a religious group.
“Any attempt to give effect to such a distinction by scrutinizing whether and how a religious school pursues its educational mission would also raise serious concerns about state entanglement with religion and denominational favoritism,” the chief justice wrote.
In what is one of his final dissenting opinions before his planned retirement, Justice Stephen Breyer said the court seems to have lost all interest in enforcing the Constitution’s prohibition on establishment of religion.
“The First Amendment begins by forbidding the government from ‘mak[ing] [any] law respecting an establishment of religion.’ It next forbids them to make any law ‘prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ The Court today pays almost no attention to the words in the first Clause while giving almost exclusive attention to the words in the second,” Breyer wrote.
Breyer also said the court was opening a Pandora’s box with its decision, suggesting that it was simply a way station to requiring all communities to use taxpayer funds to pay for religious schooling.
“We have never previously held what the Court holds today, namely, that a State must (not may) use state funds to pay for religious education as part of a tuition program designed to ensure the provision of free statewide public school education,” Breyer wrote.
“What happens once ‘may’ becomes ‘must’? Does that transformation mean that a school district that pays for public schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to send their children to religious schools?” Breyer asked. “Does it mean that school districts that give vouchers for use at charter schools must pay equivalent funds to parents who wish to give their children a religious education?”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also dissented, lamenting what she sees as a series of decisions bringing the government closer to direct sponsorship of religious activity.
“This Court continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build,” Sotomayor warned. “It is irrational for this Court to hold that the Free Exercise Clause bars Maine from giving money to parents to fund the only type of education the State may provide consistent with the Establishment Clause: a religiously neutral one. Nothing in the Constitution requires today’s result.”
“Forcing American taxpayers to fund private religious education — even when those private schools fail to meet education standards, intentionally discriminate against students, or use public funds to promote religious training, worship, and instruction — erodes the foundation of our democracy and harms students,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in a statement.
A national campaign sponsored by the Education Law Center and Southern Poverty Law Center meanwhile promised to pressure Maine’s legislature into repealing the state tuition program.
Still, the decision’s short-term reach appears to be limited — even if it creates new legal quandaries over the long term.
“Has anything enormous changed? No,” Derek Black, an education and civil rights professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, said of Tuesday’s decision. “But what we are seeing is that all gray and ambiguous or open questions are being resolved to the benefit of religion.”
In the immediate aftermath, Black said the ruling poses serious challenges for states such as Maine and Vermont that have instituted private school voucher programs that prohibit funds from going to religious schools.”