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Civil Liberties Assignment

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free
exercise thereof…”

– First Amendment, United States Constitution

There are two parts to First Amendment religious freedom. The part before the comma is

the Establishment Clause. Originally, most scholars think it just meant the federal

government couldn’t establish an official religion for the nation. Over time, it has been

interpreted more broadly to mean the government can’t promote any specific religion, or

religion in general. This gets tricky. It’s why there can be a Christmas tree in front of City

Hall in December, but not a Nativity Scene. A Christmas tree, while certainly a Christian

symbol, is widely seen by many as more of a generic holiday decoration while a Nativity

Scene is a depiction of a specific event in the Gospel of Luke, part of the Christian New

Testament.

The part after the comma is the Free Exercise Clause, and means the government can’t

interfere with a person’s right to practice their religion in most cases. This can also get

tricky. Courts have ruled that legitimate practitioners of certain indigenous American

religions can use peyote – an illegal Schedule I controlled substance – in religious

ceremonies. On the other hand, you can’t practice human sacrifice, no matter how

sincerely you might believe in it.

Joseph Kennedy was a football coach at Bremerton High School. He prayed at midfield

after each game – first alone, but later with players and even some members of the

opposing team joining him. After a scene that the school district describes as chaotic, with

spectators and reporters knocking down members of the band in an effort to join Kennedy

at midfield, the school district told him that his prayers violated the district’s policy and

offered him other options to pray – for example, after the crowd had left. Kennedy

continued to pray at games, prompting the district to place him on administrative leave

and, eventually, decline to renew his contract for the following season.

On the one hand, Kennedy – by all accounts – did this on his own, and those who joined him

did so voluntarily. On the other hand, this was a public display of religion led by a

government employee on a field owned and operated by the taxpayers in conjunction with

a government-sponsored sporting event.

Where should we draw the line between prohibiting the government from “establishing”

religion and a policy that would unconstitutionally interfere with a person’s free exercise

of their religious faith?

Find the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. Write

ou

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