Nonetheless, recent news out of Carson City, Nevada reveals that some lawmakers in “The Battle Born State” have initiated legislation that would delete the state’s laws protecting the religious conscience of employers. Learn more about the proposed legislation at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
After years of litigation on the topic, it appears that some lawmakers still don’t get it.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States in its Hobby Lobbydecision declared that family-owned businesses should be free to reflect the religious conscience of their owners. For the state to compel individuals to act contrary to their religious beliefs, is a substantial burden on their religious freedom.
Nonetheless, recent news out of Carson City, Nevada reveals that some lawmakers in “The Battle Born State” have initiated legislation that would delete the state’s laws protecting the religious conscience of employers. The pending legislation would force small business owners to provide abortifacients in their corporate health policies by deleting current legislative protections intended to protect the religious conscience of small business owners.
Americans of goodwill can disagree with one another on matters of contraception. But, we should all be in agreement that it is not the government’s job to compel the beliefs of its citizens.
As Justice Alito put it when writing for the majority in Hobby Lobby: “In our constitutional tradition, freedom means that all persons have the right to believe or strive to believe in a divine creator and a divine law. For those who choose this course, free exercise is essential in preserving their own dignity and in striving for a self-definition shaped by their religious precepts.”
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
Mia Komarevic, a member of the Serbian East Orthodox Church, filed a lawsuit against her former employer, the fashion company Chanel. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Here’s a fashionable case for us to talk about: a San Francisco woman has filed a lawsuit against her former employer, the fashion company Chanel.
According to the complaint, Mia Komarevic witnessed other staff members borrowing the designer duds for a night out on the town, only to return them the next morning as if they were brand new. Evidently that sort of thing is frowned upon in the world of fashion. So, Mia reported them.
Apparently, that led to some bad blood. The chastised managers retaliated against her. They intentionally scheduled her to work on her Sabbath, violating her Serbian East Orthodox beliefs, and refused to consider other accommodations.
Mia has filed a lawsuit against the fashion company alleging religious discrimination. It’ll be an interesting case to watch. It’s not often that religious liberty claims make it to the fashion page or that your host often readsthe fashion pages.
Yet, this case highlights the importance of valuing religious employees. It is often the case that religion instills the character qualities of hard work and honesty in an employee. To allow managers to abuse those laudable qualities is unfair and undermining our society’s dedication to respecting the religious beliefs of our neighbors.
Rather than punish an employee for their religious character, the law provides protection…and punishment for those who abuse religious employees.
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
A California judge recently ruled in favor of Cathy Miller, the owner of Tastries bakery when she was sued for declining to create a cake based on her religious convictions. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Welcome to the First Liberty Briefing. I’m Jeremy Dys.
At this point, it’s an all too familiar story: a same-sex couple asks a religious baker to custom create a wedding cake. Despite apologetically declining the business, the baker is sued and the bakery is forced to close.
But, this is not that story; not yet anyway. Cathy Miller is the religious baker and her bakery, called “Tastries” is located in Bakersfield, California. She was forced to decline some business when that client would’ve required her to use her creative expression to lend support to a union that violates her religious convictions. The couple filed a complaint and the State of California filed suit against Cathy.
But Judge David Lampe concluded that the state has an obligation to protect free speech for everyone, including Cathy. The court reasoned that, while everyone should be able to purchase ready-made goods regardless of what the customer plans to do with the goods, custom art is different.
Or, as the ACLU says, “Freedom of expression for ourselves requires freedom of expression for others.”
You see, the true test of whether we actually believe in the promise of the First Amendment is speech we find socially controversial. Popular ideas are not in great danger of being suppressed or silenced. The true test of our commitment to freedom is if we welcome that disagreement and live peaceably as neighbors anyway.
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
Despite the repeated efforts of The United States Department of Justice, the town of Airmont, New York has returned to its thirty-year history of religious discrimination, even fining an Orthodox Jewish Rabi $1,000 and up to one year in jail for peacefully worshipping within his own home with his community. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
If I were to tell you about worshippers describing themselves as “underground,” what comes to mind? Oppressive regimes and brutal dictators maybe? Nazi Germany or first century Rome?
Actually, that comes from our clients, Orthodox Jewish residents in Airmont, New York.
And, sadly, this is nothing new. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit explained in the 1995 case of LeBlanc-Stenberg v. Fletcher, that Airmont “had been incorporated for the purpose of excluding Jewish citizens, using zoning restrictions designed to prevent Jewish adherents from gathering for prayer within city limits.”
Going on three decades later, and at least two Department of Justice-led lawsuits, and the City of Airmont is still wielding its zoning laws to discriminate. Attorneys with First Liberty were in Airmont not long ago, defending a local Rabbi. He had spent over two and a half years, and about $20,000 in application costs trying to gain the approval to use his home for prayer meetings.
Instead, the city rewarded him with a citation, carrying a penalty of up to $1,000 and a year in jail, for the unlawful use of his home for prayer.
We managed to get those charges dropped . . . at least temporarily.
No one should feel like they have to pray “underground,” hiding from the government or fearing punishment for what is supposed to be the freeexercise of religion.
After Mary Ann Sause’s handwritten complaint was rejected, First Liberty Institute took her case and battled it out at the United States Supreme Court. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
The facts of Mary Anne Sause’s case are almost unbelievable. When the police visited her federally subsidized home one night investigating a noise complaint, they were clearly irritated.
Their harassment and threats were so harsh that she feared she would be taken to jail. That’s why she asked if she could pray silently while they finished their paperwork. When an officer returning to the apartment noticed her on her knees, he ordered her to stop—which would’ve probably been fine if the officer continued asking questions necessary to a police investigation. But, he didn’t. Instead, he continued to mock her and suggest not too subtly that she should move away from their small Kansas town.
Mary Anne felt abused. So abused that she went to the library to research how to file a federal lawsuit. With a paper and pen, she handwrote a complaint that a federal judge later dismissed. First Liberty took on her appeal and, what started as a hand written complaint, ended at the Supreme Court of the United States.
In a per curiam decision, the court granted Mary Anne’s appeal, vacated the decisions below, and remanded the case to the lower courts. As the justices explained in their opinion, “There can be no doubt that the First Amendment protects the right to pray . . . Prayer unquestionably constitutes the ‘exercise’ of religion.”
The Supreme Court recently rejected the appeal to address a circuit court split over whether county commissioners can open their meetings with prayer, despite the longstanding tradition. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
“This Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence is in disarray.” Those are the words of Justice Clarence Thomas, dissenting from the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the appeals of two different county commissions who open their meetings with prayer.
The commissioners in Jackson County, Michigan and Rowan County, North Carolina have followed a longstanding tradition in our country of opening legislative meetings in prayer. While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit said that individual commissioners leading prayer is constitutional, the Fourth Circuit disagreed.
We know from past decisions of the Supreme Court that the lawmakers could hire a chaplain to lead the prayers or have a local volunteer pray. So, why not the lawmakers themselves? As Justice Thomas observed, the only real difference is “the person leading the prayer.”
For now the conflict between the Fourth and Sixth Circuits remains. Lawmakers may lawfully lead prayers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, but the Fourth Circuit decision prevents lawmakers in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, or West Virginia from praying.
We hope other circuits will follow the reasoning of the Sixth Circuit because, as Justice Thomas said in his dissent, “The Fourth Circuit’s decision is both unfaithful to our precedents and ahistorical . . . as long as this country has had legislative prayer, legislators have led it.”
For the first time in our nation’s history, Attorney General Jeff Sessions hosted a summit on religious liberty, demonstrating the Trump Administration’s ongoing commitment to religious freedom. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
At the end of July 2018, the Attorney General of the United States hosted a religious liberty summit in the Grand Hall of the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
As far as I know, this is the first time in our nation’s history that a sitting Attorney General has held a day-long summit on religious liberty. For that, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and President Trump, are to be commended for the administration’s ongoing commitment to religious liberty.
Those, like me, who attended the summit heard from a cross-section of America’s religious community. One Jewish rabbi spoke of years of discrimination by a city in Florida intent on keeping their small synagogue from worshiping in their town. A Sikh told us stories of the bullying and abuse his faith community faces throughout the country. One Muslim attorney reminded us of the very real Islamophobia her community faces on a daily basis. Catholics, Protestants, and others spoke of similar concerns ranging from religious land use to matters of conscience.
More than a task force will be required to protect the religious liberty of all Americans—in the military, our schools, within houses of worship, and throughout the public square. Yet, gone are the days of an administration prosecuting nuns over birth control and reducing the robust protections of the First Amendment to a watered down, “freedom to worship.”
Jeff Montanari, a decorated Air Force captain and chaplain is facing religious discrimination from the United States Air Force after his conversion of faith. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
At the heart of religious liberty is the right to follow the faith of our choice. That means that no one, not even the United States Air Force, may force someone to follow any particular faith.
But, when Jeff Montanari converted to Orthodox Judaism, the Air Force treated him poorly. They rejected his application to be a Jewish chaplain—something the Air Force has a great need for at the present time. His superior officers were hostile towards him, excluding him from activities in order to drive him from the Air Force. He even received a litany of questions that questioned the sincerity of his conversion to Judaism.
First Liberty sent a demand letter to the Air Force explaining that their job is to win wars, not question the legitimacy of someone’s conversion. We believe the actions of a few Air Force officials to be unlawful discrimination.
As the U.S. Supreme Court put it in Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida, “[t]he First Amendment protects the free exercise rights of employees who . . . convert from one faith to another after they are hired.”
In other words, religious liberty protects against discrimination even when you change your religion.
Chaplain Montanari just wants to continue serving his country in accordance with his religious beliefs. We’re confident the Air Force can easily solve this problem and stand ready to assist in that process.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, a Colorado cake artist who politely declined to create a cake that violated his conscience. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
A cake artist from Colorado, Jack Phillips enjoys designing and creating works of art that you can eat. But, like every good artist, Jack knows his limits.
When asked to create a customized wedding cake for a relationship his faith does not recognize, he politely declined, just like he does when the confectionary request contemplates alcohol, drugs, or other elements that prick his conscience.
Still, someone complained. That complaint turned into hearings before commissioners that were supposed to judge the complaint with neutrality. Instead, at least one of the commissioners disparaged Jack’s faith, explaining, “religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history” including, he added slavery and the holocaust. He then intoned that Jack’s faith is “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use.”
Not surprisingly, Jack lost his case. That is, until it went to the Supreme Court of the United States. There, by a vote of 7 to 2, the Justices explained that the State of Colorado showed an obvious lack of neutrality toward the religion of one of its citizens. That, Justice Kennedy explained, was “inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement” of the law.
No one in America should be forced by the government to choose between their faith and their livelihood.
Not even cake artists.
After working hard for four years Sam Blackledge was named co-valedictorian and spent weeks working on his speech only to be told hours before that he had to remove all references to his faith. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
High school graduation is filled with pomp and circumstance. It’s supposed to be a joyous day as years of study culminate with caps and gowns, hearing everyone’s middle names, and mother’s weeping with joy.
That’s the kind of day Sam Blackledge expected. With a perfect 4.0 GPA, Sam earned the position of co-valedictorian of his senior class at West Prairie High School. But, as graduates assembled in the small gymnasium surrounded by small farms in rural, northwest Illinois, school officials determined that Sam could not give his speech.
Why? Because Sam’s speech mentioned God. Minutes before the ceremony began, Sam was crushed with the news.
The last lesson this school district taught its students is that they should hide their religious beliefs from public view. Sam’s only high school graduation was ruined. One wonders how many more graduations must be ruined before school officials learn that the First Amendment protect student remarks at graduation.
Sadly, there was a simple solution. As Judge Easterbrook explained, writing in Hedges v. Wauconda Community School District, “The schools proper response is to educate the audience rather than squelch the speaker.” And, if schools can’t teach that basic lesson, Judge Easterbrook observes, “one wonders whether the schools can teach anything at all.”
First Liberty represents Sam, hoping to protect future students who wish to reference their religious beliefs while on campus.
Chaplain Scott Squires is facing disciplinary action for following the rules of his endorsing agency, The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Army’s regulations when he denied to conduct a Strong Bond marriage retreat for a same-sex couple. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
The men and women of our armed forces follow rules. They have to. As Colonel Jessup famously put it in the movie A Few Good Men, “We follow orders or people die.”
Scott Squires takes that to heart and, in his 25-year career as a soldier and Army chaplain, he’s always followed the rules: of the Army andthe North American Mission Board that sends him there.
When he learned that one of his soldiers wanted to attend a marriage retreat he was leading as an Army chaplain, he knew he had to follow the rules. He did and found himself in trouble.
The North American Mission Board prevents its chaplains from facilitating marriage retreats for same-sex couples. The Army respects that and their rules allow chaplains to find another chaplain who can lead such a retreat. So, that’s what Chaplain Squires did.
He thought that would be the end of it, but an Army investigator thought otherwise and recommended that Squires be charged with “dereliction of duty.”
Chaplain Squires’ career is facing ruin because he followed the rules. Prohibiting chaplains from discussing aspects of their religious beliefs or practices with which some disagree would strip thousands of chaplains of the ability to act and speak in accordance with their sincerely held religious beliefs.
First Liberty represents Chaplain Squires because no chaplain should have to give up his First Amendment rights in order to serve.
Before he was the CEO of the Family Research Council, Jerry Boykin was a Major in the U.S. Army. A photo recently surfaced of Boykin leading his group of 100 men in a prayer prior to their efforts to save 100 Americans who were being held hostage in 1980. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Jerry Boykin has never shied away from a fight. As the CEO of the Family Research Council today, Boykin regularly shares his opinions on a variety of issues from his religious perspective.
But, Boykin hasn’t always been at FRC. A photo recently surfaced of Boykin from 1980. The black and white photo features a youthful Boykin, a Major in the U.S. Army then, with dark hair and matching beard. He’s addressing a group of about 100 Army Delta Force operators. The room is nondescript, cement walls covered with exposed wiring with but one decoration: a poster.
That’s not just any poster. It’s a collage of the pictures of the 100 Americans held hostage in Iran. Boykin’s Delta Force was about to go rescue them. But, Boykin and his men first paused to pray.
Many might second-guess this decision. Some might suggest that it was even illegal for Boykin to use his authority to coerce his men into praying. Others might conclude that the act was little more than civil religion; a meaningless act with no more efficacy than if the operators had gathered together and yelled, “Go team!”
But for the men about to dive into the face of death and danger, prayer is what they wanted and needed. Thankfully, though our servicemembers sacrifice much in the cause of freedom, they do not give up their religious freedom.
Many know about Aaron and Melissa Klein, the bakers in Oregon who lost their bakery and were fined $135,000 because they politely refused to bake a cake that conflicted with their religious convictions. But the media doesn’t show the attacks the Kleins have faced from those in their community. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
You probably know the story of Aaron and Melissa Klein, the bakers in Oregon forced out of business and fined $135,000 by the state when they politely declined business that would have forced them to violate their religious convictions.
What you may not know is that, after the State of Oregon pronounced them guilty of discrimination, private citizens were eager to show their contempt for the Kleins.
Many of the comments they received are so vulgar that I cannot repeat them here. But, here is a tame sampling.
One person, writing on Facebook said to the Kleins, “I hope your shop burns.” Another chimed in, noting that she hoped Aaron and Melissa would “burn in Hell.”
One man sent a message that said, “I hope you lose your house and have to live on the streets.” One woman even said, “We hope your children get cancer and die.”
When the government declares that citizens like Aaron and Melissa are not entitled to the Constitution’s promises of religious liberty and free speech, its people push aside any goodwill that allows people to coexist peacefully with beliefs with which they may disagree.
Aaron and Melissa have asked the Oregon Supreme Court to review their case. We hope the court will accept the appeal, if only to remind everyone that it is possible to live peacefully as neighbors even when we disagree.
In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the public reading of the Bible in public schools. So, can the Bible be taught in public schools? Learn the answer by listening at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the public reading of the Bible in public schools.
For years, students in the School District of Abington Township listened to a student read a passage from the Bible, recite the Lord’s prayer, provide announcements, and end with everyone reciting the pledge to the American flag together. That was too much involvement by the school for the court. The court determined that neutrality had been breached and a violation of the Establishment clause had occurred.
But, the question remains: can you teach the Bible in the public schools? The answer is yes.
At the end of the court’s opinion in Abington v. Schempp, the court noted:
“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
So, the Bible canbe taught in the schools. Exactly how is a more difficult conversation.
America was founded on religious freedom and toleration, and today that is not any different. A recent poll released by the Public Research Institute revealed that the religious landscape of America is changing. However, even with this change America’s commitment to religious freedom must not fail.Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
America is known for its commitment to religious liberty. People have always fled foreign lands persecuting their faith for a safe place to exercise their religion. That’s part of the story of our founding.
For the most part, the majority religion practiced here has been Christianity. According to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, that may be changing.
The survey, conducted in all 50 states with more than 101,000 Americans, is called, “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” The big take away is that the religious landscape is changing in this country, especially in the under 30 crowd. There are Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist populations that are on the rise, while the Christian community—both Catholic and Protestant—appear to be shifting downward.
It’s an interesting study and worth our attention. It reminds us that the promise of the First Amendment is a promise that Americans would be free to exercise theirreligion, not the religion of the state. It also reminds us that religious liberty is a promise for all religions in this country.
I think that promise is a good thing. It allows for a robust debate, the opportunity to debate finer theological points, and to settle our disagreements over eternal matters peacefully and respectfully.
The bottom line is this: America’s religious landscape may change, but our commitment to religious liberty cannot.
John Brooks is a firefighter in Utica, New York who has been consistently harassed for his long hair. In 2014 he vowed to live his life as a Nazirite, and promised to not cut his hair. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Employees have a right to live according to their religious beliefs both on and off the job.
John Brooks, a firefighter and paramedic in Utica, New York, just wants to be treated like every other firefighter in his department. He feels called to serve the people of Utica while also staying true to his convictions.
In 2014, Brooks made a personal promise to God to live his life as a Nazirite based on instruction in the Biblical book of Numbers. This vow included a personal promise to God not to cut the hair of his scalp. He considers his vow one of the most important events of his life.
Since becoming a Nazirite, however, the Utica Fire Department where Brooks has served for eleven years has singled him out for religious discrimination. He keeps his hair neatly tied behind his head and several other firefighters have longer hair than him, yet Brooks’ superiors forced him to wear a special hat and even a hair net. He has experienced ongoing harassment because of his special headgear and his hairnet once interfered with his firefighting equipment during a building fire.
First Liberty is fighting for Brooks’ legal right to live according to his sincerely held religious beliefs.Utica should apologize to Brooks, grant him a religious accommodation, and treat him equally with other firefighters in his department.
When a Elementary school started treating the Good News Club, a chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship, differently from the other after school clubs and programs, the Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged the school’s decision. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Have you ever been concerned when you heard someone praying? Sandra McDonald was.
She was the new site coordinator for Jenny Lind Elementary school and responsible for the after-school use of the school building by groups from the community.
Child Evangelism Fellowship had a chapter of its Good News Club meeting at the school. McDonald happened by one day and was “concerned about the religious content of the . . . clubs after overhearing a prayer and reference to Jesus Christ during a . . . meeting.” Ultimately, the club was told that it would be removed from the after-school lineup of club offerings. It would still be able to meet, but the school would no longer provide the same transportation and food services that it provided for the Boy and Girl Scouts, Big Brother/Big Sister, and other clubs meeting at the same time.
Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged that decision and, in Child Evangelism Fellowship of MN v. Minneapolis Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that the school had been unlawfully hostile to a religious club, but favorable to similarly situated secular clubs, when it should’ve been neutral toward all clubs.
School districts should not be concerned when religious clubs act like religious clubs. And, it violates the constitution to treat them differently from other clubs.
In 1956, when Elihu Schimmel wanted to celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah aboard his station of a U.S. Naval Vessel, the United States Army and Navy honored his religious liberty and helped make the Jewish service possible. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
It was September 1956 and Elihu Schimmel was cold and lonely. He was stationed aboard a U.S. Naval vessel above the arctic circle. His location would account for his being cold, but he didn’t think there was much to be done about his loneliness.
Rosh Hashanah was set to begin and, aside from another Jewish sailor, Schimmel was several friends short of a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jewish men necessary for services. But, Schimmel knew there were others scattered about the fleet in the coldest theater of the Cold War.
He decided to ask the powers that be if they would help. The Navy, and the Army hitching a ride, enthusiastically agreed. The order went out that those wishing to join Schimmel aboard ship would be transported—by seaplane, launch, or helicopter—for the observance of the Jewish High Holy Days.
When the time came, 10 Jewish service men showed up—exactly enough. The Navy went further, announcing at sunset that the services were about to begin and ordering all aboard to show reverence by putting out their cigarettes.
Schimmel served out his time as a naval medical officer, but he would never forget that celebration, high above the Arctic Circle, made possible courtesy of the United States military.
And, we now won’t forget how the United States military honored the religious liberty of its servicemembers.
An atheist group attacked Sergeant Larry Gallo and his family after they were featured in an Air Force publication highlighting their medical missions trip to Central America. The group went as far as equating their missions trip to the Crusades and demanding that the publication be removed. To learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
They were sick of a commercialized Christmas. The presents and general distraction from what they believed to be a season meant to remind us of something deeper led Larry Gallo and his family to look for something different.
So, they left behind the packages and bows to serve the less fortunate in Central America. Larry’s girls are physician’s assistants so it was natural for them to take on a medical missions role. Larry, a maintenance engineer, discovered that the kids in line needed some company. So, as his daughters provide the medicine, Larry kept the kids happy. So, what’s the problem?
Well, Larry Gallo is better known as Sergeant Larry Gallo. When the U.S. Air Force featured Gallo’s story in one of their publications, an atheist group said the article violated the First Amendment. They even alleged that Gallo’s story, “emboldens our Islamic enemies because we look like Crusaders and it enrages our Islamic allies.” They wanted the article taken down.
After a quick Internet search recently, I discovered that the article in question is still active on an Air Force website—and it should be. The Air Force should never cave to demands of censoring religion from public view. It should never punish those service members who put service over self, even outside the line of duty.
After a picture of high school football players praying over their coach landed on the front page of a local newspaper, activists sent the school district an angry letter threatening to sue. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Whether it’s Tim Tebow, Coach Joe Kennedy, or the thousands of players taking a knee together in prayer after a game, prayer seems to be a popular theme around football.
At Reitz High School in Evansville, Indiana, the players value prayer rather highly, it would seem. That became controversial only when a picture of the players gathered in prayer landed on the front page of the local newspaper.
Activists sent the school district an angry letter, threatening a lawsuit should school officials refuse to take action. According to them, the coach was violating the law because the picture showed him surrounded by his football players and everyone appeared to be praying.
But, let’s break down that picture a little closer. Yes, the coach was in the center, surrounded by his players, but it clearly shows the players, with bowed heads and hands laid on the coach, led by one player who’s lips are forming the prayers. The players were praying for their coach.
Activists would have this coach stop up his ears and run screaming from the scene of this religious activity. But, common sense—and the Constitution—would call this hostility to the free exercise of religion by the players. Students have a first amendment right to pray for their coach and the school cannot legally stop their religious expression.
Thankfully, that’s precisely what school officials told the activists.
Joseph Frederick claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when the school principal confiscated his “Bong hits for Jesus” sign at a broadcasting event. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
All the justices agreed about one thing: Joseph Frederick was just looking for attention.
In 2002, Frederick and his Juneau, Alaska classmates took a field trip as the Olympic Torch Relay passed through the town. Frederick had a prime spot directly across from the cameras broadcasting the event across the nation. He wanted to get on TV, so he painted a banner.
But, just as he unfurled the banner, school principal Deborah Morse caught the message that would eventually get the Supreme Court’s attention. “Bong hits for Jesus,” it read. Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended Frederick for the stunt, asserting it encouraged illegal drug use, against school policy. Frederick claimed she violated his First Amendment rights.
Ultimately, in Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court agreed with Principal Morse and upheld the crackdown on Frederick’s banner. Morse, acting on behalf of the state, may have censored him, but, according to the court, students cannot hide behind the First Amendment to promote illegal drug use at school.
Yet, sometimes school officials also claim the right to censor student religiousexpression. We remind them that while they mightbe able to censor on-campus expressions promoting illegal drug use, vulgar speech, or even conduct that causes a material disruption to their educational mission, school officials cannot suppress the student’s speech just because it is religious in nature.
A church was wrongly accused of violating ‘separation of church and state’ for renting space from local school district. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
A Massachusetts church is accused of violating the separation of church and state because it rents space from the local school district.
Town leaders of Southbridge, Massachusetts have raised concerns about Iglesia Casa de Destino’s rented use of a public school in its town. The church pays the standard rate to use the school’s auditorium once per week, like many churches do across the country. But, the church is known in the community for its conservative, religious beliefs.
One of the town councilmen is openly questioning whether the church should have a standing agreement to use the property. Not only is the building expensive to operate, the councilman suggested that the agreement could violate the so-called separation of church and state.
Well, not likely. The Supreme Court has twice upheld the practice. A town is, of course, under no obligation to rent its facility to anyone. But, historically, publicly owned schools have been used and rented by a variety of organizations, including churches. Once a school district decides that it will rent its facilities to the community, it would be unlawful religious discrimination to prevent churches from renting the space.
As the Supreme Court observed in the 1981 decision of Widmar v. Vincent, “The Constitution forbids a State to enforce certain exclusions from a forum generally open to the public, even if it was not required to create the forum in the first place.”
Three employees decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems. They met at their colleague’s cubicle on a day that she was not even in the office. Learn more about how a court decided this case by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Evelyne Shatkin, Linda Shifflett, and Doug Maples took prayer seriously. So, seriously in fact, that they decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems.
They met at the cubicle of their colleague after work on a day that she was not even in the office. Their prayer got pretty serious. They anointed the cubicle with oil, according to Shatkin’s religious tradition. They prayed for peace and joy for their colleague. They even commanded “demons to leave” their colleague as they prayed.
Word got back to their supervisors about the after-hours prayer meeting. After an investigation, the supervisor concluded that “the nature, the manner that they’re praying, what language they’re using” determines whether the prayer was harassment. Human resources agreed and notified the prayer-givers that they would be terminated for their harassing prayers. Shatkin and Shifflett asked for a religious accommodation for the prayers, but that was denied. They were fired.
First Liberty Institute took up their case. A federal district court sided with the employees, as it concluded, “Can a prayer for someone constitute harassment when the alleged object of the prayer is unaware of it? This court suspects not.” In fact, the court concluded that the college’s own policies protected the prayers of these employees.
Firing someone for their peaceful exercise of religion at work doesn’t have a prayer.
A Tennessee Governor has recently signed into law a measure protecting the religious liberty of Tennessee’s student-athletes. Find more about this law at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee has signed into law a measure protecting the religious liberty of Tennessee’s student athletes.
The new law allows parents to opt their students out of participation in an athletic contest “if the event is on an official school holiday, observed day of worship, or religious holiday.” Moreover, it sets the authority aright by explaining that school officials “may not require a student to attend an athletic event” over the parent’s objection.
Some wonder how necessary such a measure is. They argue that schools already respect the religious choices of student-athletes and do not punish those students who, for religious reasons, sit out of scheduled contests.
That, I suppose, is a debate for the ages. Whether athletes should participate on holy days is not a new issue, just watch the classic movie Chariots of Fireas but one example. Nonetheless, it is good to see the State of Tennessee explicitly stating that its school districts should be mindful that there are things to be respected of higher importance than sports.
Athletics can teach students much about life, diligence, and teamwork. But, life-balance is a critical element taught by sports in school as well. Today’s student-athletes are tomorrow’s business leaders who may be required to accommodate the religious practices of employees. Let us hope they learn the delicate balance of freedom well.
The Florida Legislature could sign a law that would align it with the federal Equal Access Act, protecting the religious liberty of its students and teachers. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
It looks like religious liberty may have found a friendly reception in Florida’s state lawmakers.
The Florida legislature recently sent to the governor a bill prohibiting discrimination against students and educators for religious expression at school. The bill expressly permits students to reference their faith in class assignments and even extra-curricular activities, while requiring school districts to create what we call a “limited public forum” at public events. This means that, if students at a school event are invited to speak publicly, they would be permitted to express their religious beliefs.
Should the governor sign the measure, the law of Florida would align itself with the federal Equal Access Act. That means student religious groups would have state law on their side when seeking to access campus facilities in the same way secular groups do.
Teachers are also covered. The bill has a provision restricting school districts from preventing teachers from participating in student-initiated religious activities before or after school.
These are reasonable measures that will show respect for the religious liberty of Florida’s students and teachers. As the Supreme Court said in Shelton v. Tucker: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”
Of course, that vigilance starts with the passing of laws and ends by faithfully adhering to them.