Press Release

Supreme Court overrules Lemon test, rules in favor of prayer for football coach High Court protects diverse religious expression in public life

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the high school football coach who fought for his right to pray after games, and overturned a decision that had long restricted religious expression in public schools. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, Bremerton School District fired Coach Kennedy from his coaching position after school officials decided his quiet, midfield post-game prayer was “coercive” and “divisive” speech that violated the Establishment Clause.  

Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on behalf of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, explaining that “[t]he only way to escape future Establishment Clause confusion” is to overrule the Lemon test. In place of Lemon, Becket explained that the Court should apply our nation’s tradition of free exercise even on school or government grounds. Muslims and Sikhs wear beards, Orthodox Jews wear yarmulkes, and Catholics carry rosaries or wear crucifixes. Forcing prayer into a private booth—the “solution” offered to Coach Kennedy before the Supreme Court intervened—is contrary to the best traditions protected by the First Amendment. 

“We must always remember the importance of prayer in American life,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty. “The freedom to pray is essential to the moral duty all people possess toward the truth. The Court’s decision to prevent the forced expulsion of voluntary prayer from public life is a major victory for all Americans who wish to discover and live the truth.” 

In its opinion, the Supreme Court wrote that “[r]espect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic—whether those expressions take place in a sanctuary or on a field, and whether they manifest through the spoken word or a bowed head.” Coach Kennedy, the Court held, was pursued by the government “for engaging in a brief, quiet, personal religious observance doubly protected by the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses.” 

The Court also pointed out that Coach Kennedy had observed this tradition for years and did not force any of his players to join him. In addition, he made sure his team knew it was optional, and did not play favorites to those athletes that decided to partake in his prayer. All Kennedy wanted to do was retain his position as head coach while adhering to his faith, a right shared by all Americans. Nothing about this is unconstitutional coercion. As the Supreme Court held, “‘[o]ffense does not equate to coercion.’”  

Becket’s brief had also asked the Court to strike out the Lemon test, a vague legal standard used to decide Establishment Clause cases. The Court confirmed that Lemon has long been dead, and that the Establishment Clause is understood through America’s history and tradition of religious pluralism. 

“Since our Founding, our constitutional tradition upholds public religious expression as a natural part of human life and culture,” said William Haun, senior counsel at Becket. “Scrubbing religious expression from the public square, based on nothing more than offense, is as unnatural as it is unconstitutional.” 

Coach Kennedy was represented at the Supreme Court by First Liberty Institute, Paul Clement and Erin Murphy of Clement Murphy PLLC, Spencer Fane LLP, and The Helsdon Law Firm, PLLC.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Chinese, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.