The Supreme Court and Religious Liberty

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Lesson Overview

At the end of its last term, the Supreme Court issued two rulings that turned on the constitutional principle of religious liberty. In this free lesson, students will explore these two cases: Kennedy v. Bremerton School District and Carson and Nelson v. Makin, in light of the First Amendment and its guarantee of freedom of religion and speech for all Americans.

In this lesson your students will:

  • Examine the facts of two Supreme Court cases on free expression.
  • Understand the origin of the liberties protected by the First Amendment.
  • Assess the importance of freedom of religion in a free and diverse society.
  • Assess the importance of freedom of speech in a free and diverse society.

Lesson Materials



A. Put students in small groups and assign them to examine either Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (2022), or Carson and Nelson v. Makin (2022). They may review the provided news articles as well as the case summaries to answer the first 4 questions on the handout.

B. You may wish to write the text of the First Amendment on the board: 鈥淐ongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.鈥

C. When students have finished have them jigsaw into pairs with one student who studied each case and brief each other on the facts and ruling.

D. Discuss the remaining questions as a large group, using the answer key as a guide.

E. Devote extra time to sharing responses to the last question if possible, or consider making it a creative project homework assignment.

Answer Key

  1. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District: High school football coach Joseph Kennedy lost his job after he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet personal prayer. Carson and Nelson v. Makin: The state of Maine had a school choice program that reimbursed parents for private school expenses, unless the parents chose a religious school.
  2. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District: Did the school district鈥檚 actions violate the First Amendment鈥檚 Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses? Carson and Nelson v. Makin: Did Maine鈥檚 school choice program violate the First Amendment鈥檚 Free Exercise Clause?
  3. Kennedy v. Bremerton School District: The Court ruled in favor of Coach Kennedy. Carson and Nelson v. Makin: The Court ruled that Maine鈥檚 program violated the First Amendment.
  4. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Note: The First Amendment (which begins 鈥淐ongress shall make no law...鈥) was originally written to limit only the actions of the national government. After the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) limited the powers of states, the Supreme Court began to apply parts of the Bill of Rights to state governments as well. BONUS: The phrase comes from a letter written by then-President Thomas Jefferson in response to the Danbury Baptists, who were worried that the national government would interfere in their church.
  5. We all have equal rights because we are all created by God, made in His image and likeness. God is the origin of our rights.
  6. Examples will vary. Free speech and religion ensure that people can express ideas peacefully, so they have the chance to convince others through reasoned discussion rather than through coercion and violence. Free speech and religion do not ensure that society is free of violence, of course, but they make violence less common by providing people a means of spreading ideas that respect the rights of others to determine their own beliefs.
  7. We have a responsibility to respect the equal natural rights of all people. The Catechism teaches 鈥淓very human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order鈥 (1738). In a similar way, we have the right to freedom of speech because the Truth is a common good. The government can justly punish libelous speech or obscenity in order to protect the innocent, but we have a duty to protect the thoughts, beliefs, and expressions of our neighbor, even if we vehemently disagree with them, in recognition of their dignity and freedom. It can be tempting in a democratic society to support censorship of opposing views. From a purely practical standpoint, students may need to be reminded that people who agree with them will not always be in power. Once censorship is allowed, one鈥檚 own viewpoint could and probably will be the next to be censored. That is why, as Thomas Paine wrote, 鈥淗e that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.鈥
  8. He prayed silently after games. In this case, he was praying individually whereas if he required students to pray with him, their rights not to be coerced into prayer would likely come into play. (Here it is important to remember that public schools are government institutions and therefore they are limited by protections for citizens in the Bill of Rights.)
  9. A free society requires respect for the religious traditions of others. Showing respect while others are praying, for example, is a way we can promote peace in society. More broadly, tolerating expressions we disagree with (rather than resorting to violence) is a mark of a civilized society. Note that this does NOT mean we should expect others to agree with us or show support us in our beliefs. In fact we must always remember that free speech applies to everyone. We can express our own views, and so can others鈥 including those who disagree.
  10. Maine鈥檚 school choice program gave money to families to choose the best school for their children but withheld the money if the parents chose a religious school.
  11. They argued it was akin to government sponsorship of religion, prohibited by the First Amendment.
  12. The Court ruled against Maine鈥檚 program. It held that state school choice programs must be neutral: parents who choose religious or non-religious options must be treated the same way.
  13. There is no such thing as education that imparts no values or requires no faith. Public schools were established to help produce good citizens of a self- governing republic. In general, today, they strive to impart values such as fairness, participation, cooperation, egalitarianism, tolerance, secular humanism, and, to a certain extent, towards progressive ideologies. They encourage students to have faith in democratic processes, scientific experts, the school system, the media, in the three branches of government and the checks and balances built into our constitutional system. Accept additional reasoned answers.
  14. Accept reasoned and creative answers. Encourage students to think outside the box!


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