If you’re like me and more the creative artsy type there’s a chance that history wasn’t your favorite subject and you did all you could simply to pass the class. But as we grow in an evolving society where the news is filled with numerous cases against the personal stance on the Christian faith, I think it’s critical that my generation becomes firmly aware of their rights as an American person of faith. We hear people constantly slamming the words, “Its their first amendment right!” in cases like Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty and the 5 pastors whose sermons and speeches were subpoenaed by Mayor Annise Parker. But I wonder how aware we truly are in the details of religious liberty when it comes to public encounters in our country. Will you know how to defend your rights to someone in power such as a cop or school official? I’ll break it down in simple terms and I’d like to thank the dedicated team of ACLJ for their aid in this article whether they know it or not.
1. The First Amendment
“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.”
— The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The first amendment basically tells us as Americans we all have the freedom to have (or not have) religion as well as the liberty to express our faith, gather as an assembly and challenge our government on the moral issues facing our nation. We are to have protected rights in these areas. It also addresses the fact that the government cannot assume a national religion or uphold one unfairly over the other. They cannot allow one viewpoint to be discussed on a subject without allowing the other. Viewpoint based discrimination is unconstitutional.
James Madison, the author of the Bill of Rights, believed that “the Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Our founding fathers were very intentional about instilling a culture of equality when it came to the expression and practice of faith in America. And the best way to protect the peace of this liberty was to keep the government out of religion! That includes the federal government, the state, local governments and school boards.
Religion per wikipedia is defined as an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to an order of existence. When I look at this, religion is a cultural belief system. Much of our world has assumed “religious beliefs” but calls it secularism when in fact it is a firm set of subjective beliefs they stand on without compromise. There are those who call themselves non-religious and yet have a central belief system just as someone titled “religious” would, that is also constantly imposed at the expense of others. This is where I believe we find ourselves at conflict.
2. The Freedom of Speech and Expression
“Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference” and “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.
-Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
This is your political right to communicate your opinions using your own body and property “to anyone who is willing to receive them”. The liberty to express these includes various mediums such as in media, writing, print, art, speech, etc. of your choice. You have a voice!
To some extent government may restrict actions such as hate speech, obstruction of privacy, or obscene things like pornography. Article 19 goes on to say “therefore be subject to certain restrictions” when necessary “for respect of the rights or reputation of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.
My question for our society would be, what would one consider hate speech? I find myself encountering many who consider any views different from their own a form of hate. I believe it’s perfectly possible to disagree respectfully without harboring any form of hatred. Hopefully others will maturely open their eyes to this as well.
3. Public Witnessing
In being blessed to have the opportunity to encourage young people to live out their faith throughUnashamed Impact, we’ve had great opportunities to share the love of Christ in our cities and school campuses. Some of you might be interested in public witnessing but could be hesitant because you’re not exactly sure of what your freedoms are in the public square.
Like I stated earlier, your freedom of speech is to be strongly protected through various mediums. Public witnessing commonly includes sharing in parks, on sidewalks and streets. These are considered “traditional public forms” which are open to public expression and assembly. You may be threatened with the term “loitering”. Its invalid. You’re not loitering if you have a legitimate purpose or business for being at that place; evangelism included. Just don’t run into the middle of the street and cause disorder for traffic of course! This also is restricted from privately owned property.
What about passing out forms of written materials like tracts or leaflets? This is still protected by the right of Freedom of Speech and Press. You may be threatened with “soliciting”. Its invalid. As long as you’re giving away free literature and aren’t hustling for donations it is a protected right. However, I do suggest contacting a local attorney on this as some local governments impose local restrictions for a valid time and place to exercise “peace and good order”.
4. Faith at Work
Engaging in voluntary Bible studies or reading the Bible at your job is a right of public employees as long as its during nonworking hours. The First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protect this before, after or during breaks in the workplace. Employees are also freely allowed to engage in private religious expression with other employees in the same way non religious expression is, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the efficiency of the workplace.
If there is a room or conference room the employees are allowed to use for non religious purposes during non working hours then they also ought to be allowed usage for things like Bible Studies as well. Contrary to this would be religious discrimination.
5. Student Bible Clubs
Sometimes I get young adults who are amped to start a Bible study club of some sort on their campus and they question their ability to do so. There are cases where public schools may try to forbid Christian student groups on college, high school and middle school campuses. There are a couple things we want to look at.
The First Amendment, again, protects against viewpoint discrimination. This would forbid school policies that prevent religious organizations from “using public facilities that are open to other groups.” as ACLJ states. Christian student groups have to be given the same access and recognition as nonreligious groups.
ACLJ shares that “3 facts determine whether the Equal Access Act compels official recognition of a Bible club by school officials:
1) Does the school receive federal funds
2) Is the school a public secondary school
3) Does the school allow any non curricular clubs to meet on campus?
When these factors are satisfied, federal law compels school officials to provide equal access to students who want to organize and conduct Bible clubs and student prayer groups. In fact, school administrators are in danger of violating the Equal Access Act and the Constitution if they forbid, censor, or inhibit the prayer activities of Bible Clubs or Prayer Groups, absent a substantial disruption.
If a school allows secular groups to advertise in the school newspaper, make public announcements, or distribute leaflets, then the same privileges must be extended to religious groups.”
NOTE: If the school policy requires for a teacher to sponsor all school clubs that may infringe on government endorsement in which they cannot be involved in any political or religious organization. Keep in mind, non discrimination policies are also included in registering clubs which means all members must be accepted including those who disagree with the organization values. Yes, this may hinder the mission or values of that group.
6. Expressions of Faith in School
Rights of free speech and expression do not stop on the school campus. Going back to First Amendment rights, schools have to allow religious speech and discussion in the same way they allow any other speech as long as its student led and doesn’t “materially or substantially” disrupt school activities.
If a teacher opens up a topic assignment to the students choice, like books, discussions or performances, you can choose religious themes. You can express your faith in “homework, artwork and other oral or written assignments without the fear of censorship”. Its the same rights that peers have for their personal literature. The Supreme Court has stated that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.” Tinker, 393 U.S. at 512.
Other things the First Amendment protects: the right to wear Christian clothing with symbolism and accessories, bringing your Bible to school (only used during free time, including in class free time), private speech and student led prayer.
7. Prayer in School
“As long as students are voluntarily engaging in prayer and are free from any type of governmental endorsement, their religious expression is constitutionally protected.” says ACLJ. You can pray and talk with other students in the same way you can engage in any other conversation. As long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others prayer is protected by the Free Exercise Clause and Free Speech Clause and cannot be restricted by the government.
While a speech given by say, a valedictorian during graduation which includes an expression of their faith or a personal prayer is protected and cannot be censored by school officials, a graduation prayer would be considered unconstitutional in a public school. That would impose on students of other faith the feeling that their participation is required. However, ACLJ suggests, you can choose to have an alternative private event that includes prayer.
My hopes is that after reading this our generation will be compelled to express their faith without fear because they can stand firm on the rights our Founding Fathers built this nation on.
These represent the current state of the law at the time of writing. Contact an attorney or ACLJ if you have further legal questions.