The United States Supreme Court last week issued important rulings affecting religious freedom. The two cases are Carson v Makin and Kennedy v Bremerton. Both cases involve the First Amendment and schools.
In the Kennedy case, Coach Kennedy, a high school football coach, was in the habit of dropping to his knees at the 50-yard line, post-game, and silently praying. The school district determined that he was subjecting it to the potential for lawsuits by engaging in this constitutionally "inappropriate" activity. When he refused to stop his post-game pigskin prayers, the school suspended him.
In the Carson case, parents in Maine sued the state over its tuition assistance program. The state program provided tuition for students who wanted or needed to attend private schools. The major constraint was that parents could not qualify for funds if they sent their children to a religious school. Like the Kennedy case, there was a fear that if the state did not prohibit tuition reimbursement for religious schools, the state would be "sponsoring" religion.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech." Importantly, First Amendment protections extend to "teachers and students," neither of whom "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."
So what happened? The Supreme Court found that by not allowing Coach Kennedy or the parents in Maine to exercise their religious freedoms, the defendants were treading on their rights. What Coach Kennedy was doing was personal and was not speech on behalf of the school district. The Carson case held that the statute was not religiously neutral because the state was, in effect, forcing a non-religious agenda on the parents. These state-sponsored acts interfered in the private exercise of religion.
As the Supreme Court pointed out, the First Amendment "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."
From a historical perspective, when the Constitution was enacted the citizenry had gone from people seeking religious freedom to people supporting religious freedom as long as you practiced the right religion. Thankfully, the developing threats to religious freedoms were not lost on James Madison. This author of the Constitution said, "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?"
Likewise, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, summed up religious freedom by saying that the law must hold people of every denomination "within the mantle of its protection." Amen!
* This article first appeared in The Journal Record on July 8, 2022, and is reproduced with permission from the publisher.
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