Thursday, May 21, 2015

COURT-MARTIALED! Marine Criminally Prosecuted by the U.S. Government for Displaying a Bible Verse in Her Workspace

Liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Paul Clement ask the military’s highest court to take the case and protect service members’ right to religious freedom



This week, Liberty Institute and volunteer attorney Paul Clement asked the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF)—the highest military court whose cases are subject to review by the Supreme Court of the United States—to review the case of Lance Corporal (LCpl) Monifa Sterling, USMC. LCpl Sterling was convicted at a court-martial for putting a Bible verse on her computer when she was stationed at Camp Lejune, North Carolina.

After being criminally prosecuted by the United States Government, LCpl Sterling initially represented herself, then appealed her case to the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals. She again cited her First Amendment rights to religious expression, as well as her protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). RFRA is a vital law that has been used in court to protect religious liberty in various contexts.

But in this case, both the trial and the appellate court said RFRA did not apply because displaying a Bible verse does not constitute religious exercise.  Sterling and her attorneys take issue with this opinion.

“If the government can order a Marine not to display a Bible verse, they could try and order her not to go to church on Sunday,” says Liberty Institute Director of Military Affairs and Senior Counsel Mike Berry. “Restricting a Marine’s free exercise of religion is blatantly unconstitutional.”

Liberty Institute, along with volunteer attorney Paul Clement—a partner at Bancroft PLLC who has argued over 75 cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including the recent Hobby Lobby victory—is now asking the court to rule that the appellate court should have applied RFRA in LCpl Sterling’s case, protecting her right to post Bible verses as a form of religious exercise.

A decision that RFRA should have been applied would set a major precedent that could be used to protect others in the military who desire to express their faith while serving their country.

NON-RELIGIOUS SPEECH IS OKAY . . . BUT RELIGIOUS IS NOT?

While stationed at Camp Lejune, LCpl Sterling, a devout Christian of Haitian descent, noticed that other service members had placed various personal items in their work spaces at the military base. So she decided to express herself as well in her workspace by displaying one of her favorite Bible verses.

LCpl Sterling printed out the words of Isaiah 54:17: “No weapon formed against you shall prosper.” But after taping it in three different places in her workspace, LCpl Sterling’s supervisor—who also happened to be her former drill instructor—ordered her to remove the Bible verse, cursing at her in the process. When LCpl Sterling asked why, her supervisor said, “I don’t like the tone.” The service member explained it was her First Amendment right to display the Bible verse and declined to take them down. Moreover, no other person in the unit ever complained about the verse.

The next day, LCpl Sterling discovered that her supervisor tore down the Bible verse and threw it in the trash. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Government charged LCpl Sterling with the crime of failing to obey a direct order because she did not remove the Bible verse.

“If a service member has a right to display a secular poster, put an atheist bumper sticker on their car, or get a Star of David tattoo,” explains Berry, “then Lance Corporal Sterling has the right to display a small Bible verse on her computer monitor.”

ATTACKS ON RELIGION TRIGGER VIGOROUS LEGAL DEFENSE

Liberty Institute has defended service members in all four branches of the military—from officers to enlisted service members to chaplains who are black and white, male and female. “Nobody in the military is safe anymore,” adds Berry, “regardless of rank, age, color, gender, or branch of service. Whether you are a lowly private, or a commanding general, opponents of religious freedom simply don’t care. Clearly, people of faith are the targets.”

Other military members represented by Liberty Institute include:

  • Chaplain Wes Modder, a highly-decorated chaplain unlawfully and unconstitutionally discriminated against by the U.S. Navy – When a few soldiers requested private counseling sessions with Chaplain Wes Modder and then complained that they disagreed with the chaplain’s religious beliefs and moral convictions shared in these sessions, Chaplain Modder’s commander removed Chaplain Modder from his unit and isolated him at the base chapel. Liberty Institute is vigorously defending Chaplain Modder and asked a Navy admiral to reject the commander’s punishment of Chaplain Modder and exonerate him so he can continue ministering to sailors and Marines and fulfill his duty of service.
  • Chaplain Joe Lawhorn, a former Army Ranger punished by the Army over a lifesaving, anti-suicide message – Colonel David Fivecoat, Chaplain Lawhorn’s commanding officer, reprimanded Chaplain Lawhorn because of a suicide prevention presentation he gave to an Army Ranger battalion. Chaplain Lawhorn’s message included his own personal testimony of how his Christian faith had helped him counter depression. But the Colonel deemed it too Christian in its approach, and the Colonel subsequently issued Lawhorn a “Letter of Concern” to be placed in the Chaplain’s file. Liberty Institute defended Chaplain Lawhorn’s religious freedom, resulting in successful removal of the “Letter of Concern” from the Chaplain’s file.
  • Senior Master Sergeant (Retired) Phillip Monk, a U.S. Air Force veteran who was exonerated after filing a religious discrimination claim against his commander – When Senior Master Sergeant (Retired) Phillip Monk was on active duty, he respectfully declined his commander’s demand that Monk agree with her views on same-sex marriage. As a result, she relieved him of his duties and banned him from her unit. Liberty Institute stepped in and filed a formal complaint with the military on SMSgt Monk’s behalf. During a meeting following the formal complaint filing, Air Force investigators abruptly read SMSgt Monk his Miranda rights, accusing him of the military crime of making false official statements. The Air Force investigation cleared SMSgt Monk of any crimes, avoiding any potential court-martial or disciplinary action that could have jeopardized his retirement. Last year, the Air Force presented SMSgt Monk with a prestigious award for his performance and conduct and also approved SMSgt Monk’s request to officially retire after more than 20 years of faithful service.

SERVICE MEMBERS CAN SECURE THEIR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM

Our service members give up many freedoms when serving, but religious freedom is never one of them. The First Amendment, RFRA, and military code protect service members’ right to express their faith freely, and their right to free religious expression should be protected.

For that reason, Liberty Institute is hopeful that CAAF will decide to take LCpl Monifa Sterling’s case and correct the lower court ruling by saying RFRA does apply—and that displaying scripture, especially when no one complained about the small verse, is unquestionably and constitutionally protected religious exercise and expression of faith.



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A President's Prayer for "Our Republic, Our Religion, and Our Civilization"



About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.

School Officials BAN Sixth-Grade Student the Right to Use Bible Verse in Class Assignment

Liberty Institute sends demand letter to Somerset Academy seeking apology and restoration of 12-year-old client’s constitutional right to freely express her faith in school assignments
 
School officials told sixth-grader Mackenzie Fraiser she can't use a Bible verse in her school project.

This week, Liberty Institute sent a demand letter to school officials at Somerset Academy, a public charter school in Las Vegas, Nevada, after 12-year-old Mackenzie Fraiser was denied the right to include a Bible verse in a class assignment called “All About Me.”

In February 2015, Mackenzie, who is in sixth grade, was assigned to compose a PowerPoint presentation called “All About Me.” This presentation was to include a slide with an “inspirational saying” that explained more about who she is as a person. Since Mackenzie’s Christian faith is a central aspect of who she is, Mackenzie wanted to include a Bible verse—John 3:16—as the inspirational saying in her project.

However, the teacher informed the class that they could not use “Bible verses or quotations from the Book of Mormon” on the “inspirational sayings” slide, so Mackenzie was forced to choose a nonreligious saying.

A few months later, in May, the class was assigned a project on self-esteem. When Mackenzie contemplated explaining that her self-esteem is rooted in being created in the image of God, Mackenzie grew nervous. She told her parents that her teacher had said students are not allowed to include Bible verses in their assignments, so she thought it was wrong—or even illegal—to talk about her faith in an assignment.

UNCONSTITUTIONAL CENSORSHIP OF RELIGIOUS EXPRESSION

Mackenzie’s father, a pastor, contacted the school to find out why his daughter had not been allowed to include a Bible verse in her project. Somerset Academy’s Assistant Principal replied to Pastor Fraiser that the school was following U.S. Department of Education guidelines. However, the school was wrong: U.S. Department of Education guidelines expressly permit student religious expression in class assignments.

“Students have a constitutional right to express their beliefs in class assignments,” says Jeremy Dys, Liberty Institute Senior Counsel. “Banning students from expressing their religious beliefs in class assignments teaches students that religion is bad. When school officials violate the civil rights of religious students, they must apologize and reaffirm the right of their students to express their faith in school assignments.

“The Supreme Court and the United States Department of Education repeatedly recognize that ‘Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions,’” Dys explains, quoting the U.S. Department of Education’s guidelines on the subject.

Liberty Institute’s demand letter gives Somerset Academy school officials 10 days to issue a written apology to the Fraisers and allow Mackenzie to resubmit her assignment using a Bible verse of her choice.

GROWING HOSTILITY TO RELIGION IN THE SCHOOL

In the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the landmark Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) decision, Justice Abe Fortas wrote, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Despite this decision and other Supreme Court precedents, Mackenzie is not the only student to experience the violation of free speech and religious liberty rights. Liberty Institute clients who have suffered from hostility to religion in the school also include:

  • Kountze Cheerleaders—For years, cheerleaders in the Kountze Independent School District in Kountze, Texas, chose their own messages to paint on run-through banners at sporting events. But when the cheerleaders decided to paint Bible verses on the banners, the Freedom from Religion Foundation complained, and the Kountze ISD banned the religious messages. Eventually, the school district agreed to allow the messages, but the district still claimed that the messages on the banners were government speech subject to censorship by the school. Liberty Institute is petitioning the Texas Supreme Court to rule that the cheerleaders’ messages are private speech protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—not government speech subject to censorship.

  • Erin Shead—When ten-year-old Erin Shead was assigned a project at school to write about her idol, Erin wanted to write about God. However, her teacher rejected her assignment about God and instead accepted one about Michael Jackson. Liberty Institute got involved, and after several conversations with the school district’s general counsel, Erin was allowed to turn in her assignment on God and received an A.

Liberty Institute’s Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America chronicles many more violations of religious liberty rights in the school.

COMMITTED TO DEFENDING RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Liberty Institute is dedicated to protecting the constitutional right of Mackenzie and students like her to freely express their faith without censorship. The U.S. Constitution and federal law protect religious liberty, and with a more than 90% win rate, the non-profit legal firm is confident that Mackenzie’s case will be successfully resolved.



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A President's Prayer for "Our Republic, Our Religion, and Our Civilization"



About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.

A President's Prayer for "Our Republic, Our Religion and Our Civilization"

by Kelly Shackelford, Esq.
President, CEO & Chief Counse
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This Memorial Day, as we remember our fallen military heroes, isn’t it appropriate that we identify and recommit ourselves to the things for which they offered the ultimate sacrifice?

I’m not sure any U.S. President described it more dramatically than Franklin D. Roosevelt on D-Day, as more than 100,000 Americans crossed the English Channel to invade Nazi-occupied France. Roosevelt’s expression of what they were defending was especially significant considering he spoke publicly, with a national radio audience of millions joining him, to God Himself in a prayer that lasted a full six-and-a-half minutes.

Consider that. At a time when the souls of many soldiers overseas would be departing this life to meet God, the man the nation elected to lead the government was now leading the country into the presence of that God.

What did Roosevelt say those brave souls were dying to defend? He did not mince words when he spoke to the Almighty:

“Almighty God: Our sons, the pride of our nation, this day have
set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our
Republic, our religion, and our civilization
, and to set free a suffering humanity.”

To Roosevelt, there was an unbreakable connection between free government—“our Republic”—our way of life—“our civilization”—and our faith in God—“our religion.” All were intertwined. All were at risk together. Separation of religion and state would have been a laughable, repugnant, and dangerous notion at such a clarifying hour of national crisis.

The first president, George Washington, would have understood. As commander of the Continental Army, Washington asserted, “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger.”

Keep in mind, Roosevelt’s prayer was no vague deistic platitude. He called upon God to act. He requested, “Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong.”

Nor was the prayer mere ceremony and political window dressing. This was a long prayer. It took up an entire presidential address, given on the most important day of Roosevelt’s presidency, concerning one of the most important events in American and world history. What’s more, the President urged God to remind the people to keep praying throughout the grind of the war.

The prayer also made bold statements about the afterlife—especially poignant for us to recall on a day like Memorial Day. The President acknowledged, “Some will never return.” He asked, “Embrace these, Father, and receive them, Thy heroic servants, into Thy kingdom.”

Finally, this was no prayer diluted with politically-correct moral relativism. For a President and his people going before God that fateful night, good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark were very real:  “With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy, “ he said. “Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogance.”

For years, anti-faith special interests and the U.S. government saw fit to exclude President Roosevelt’s prayer from the otherwise magnificent World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. The ACLU and others vigorously opposed etching his words on the stone of the expansive memorial. Finally, last year the inclusion of the prayer became law, though it must be added to the memorial with private funds.

If they had their way, the secularists would tear down existing memorials that are in the form of a cross honoring our war dead located on public property. For instance, Liberty Institute is standing in the way of the American Humanist Association, which wants a court to remove the 40-foot Maryland WWI “Mothers Memorial,” and we have stood against the ACLU’s attempts to tear down the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial and the Mojave Veterans Memorial in California.

Secularists would also neuter the spiritual authority of military chaplains, as politically correct commanders attempted to do with our clients such as chaplains Joseph Lawhorn (U.S. Army) and Wes Modder (U.S. Navy). If President Franklin Roosevelt could utter a doctrine-laden prayer in an official address to the nation, can’t a military chaplain be free to express his or her religious viewpoint?

This Memorial Day, let’s apply President Roosevelt’s words. Let’s continue to fight “a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization,” because those three institutions remain intertwined. And indeed, they remain under attack. These are the things our fallen service members gave their lives to defend on the battlefield. We owe it to them to continue that defense in every area of the free society they entrusted to our care.

To watch a special Memorial Day slideshow, please click on the screen below.

 




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School Officials DENY Sixth-Grade Student the Right to Use Bible Verse in Class Assignment



About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A READY DEFENSE: How to Protect Your Ministry or Faith-Based Business from Legal Attack and Ruin

How do you save your ministry, faith-based business, or church from attacks that are already happening? People of faith can equip themselves to withstand litigation by anti-religious opponents! Learn more from Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer  . . .



It was right there in the New York Times earlier this year: blatant hostility toward the religious liberty rights of people of faith. Openly-gay columnist Frank Bruni didn’t candy-coat it:

“. . . I do support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish—in their pews, homes and hearts. But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.”

That’s the reality of today in America, where it’s now open season on people of faith who are vulnerable to growing attacks by litigious individuals and organizations offended by traditional religious viewpoints. They’re seeking to litigate employment discrimination claims to further a larger political or cultural agenda.

While there is hope from key Supreme Court cases, Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC (a victory granting ministries latitude in hiring, firing, and disciplining ministerial employees) and Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. & Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Burwell (a landmark win for freedom of conscience rights), churches, ministries, and schools, and faith-based businesses still need to take legal steps to protect themselves from serious legal and financial ruin.

6 REAL-LIFE EXAMPLES OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY THREATS

What does it look like when ministries or faith-based businesses face legal attacks? Churches, synagogues, religious charities, orphanages, shelters, Christian sororities and fraternities, and faith-based businesses are all at risk. 

Consider these six real-life examples of religious liberty threats . . .


1.    Catholic Charities forced to close adoption services in Boston.

When a Massachusetts state law was passed stating that homosexuals must be allowed to adopt, Catholic Charities of the Boston Archdiocese made the difficult decision to stop offering adoption services—to avoid violating their sincerely held religious beliefs by providing adoptions to same-sex couples. Then, when the Catholic agency tried to obtain, an exemption from state law, it was denied.

2.    Transgender woman sues Christian university that expelled her.

A student who designated herself as “female” on her application for admission was expelled from California Baptist University after it was discovered she was born a male. The student sued the private, Christian, liberal arts university in Riverside, California, and alleged the school violated California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act—which provides protection from discrimination by all places of businesses in California because of, among other things, sex (including pregnancy, childbirth, medical conditions related to pregnancy or childbirth, gender, gender identity, and gender expression).

3.    The Salvation Army must close programs after the city of San Francisco refuses religious exemption.

The 150-year-old Christian denominational church and international charitable organization
could not comply with the domestic partners law in San Francisco, California, and was forced to scale back its programs for senior citizens and the homeless. The city of San Francisco refused to grant The Salvation Army a religious exemption, and now The Salvation Army no longer accepts city money to help fund its community outreach efforts.

4.    Same-sex couple sues Christian preschool for rejecting son as student.

After initially accepting a three-year-old student, New Hope Christian School in Albuquerque, New Mexico, rejected the admission of the young boy after learning his parents were a same-sex couple. The two men raising the son filed a lawsuit under New Mexico’s Human Rights Act which makes it unlawful for “any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to any person because of . . . sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation. . . .”

5.    Government tells Christian ministers: Perform same-sex weddings or face jail and fines.

City officials in Coeur, d’Alene, Idaho told Christian ministers Donald and Evelyn Knapp that they have to officiate same-sex weddings at Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The couple, who own and operate the wedding chapel which has been in existence for over 50 years, face a 180-day jail term and $1,000 fine for each day they decline to celebrate the same-sex wedding.

6.    Intervarsity Christian Fellowship loses campus access to California State University system.

Because Intervarsity Christian Fellowship requires its student leaders to affirm Christian doctrines, California State University told the evangelical and interdenominational campus ministry that a non-discrimination policy requires student leadership position to be open to all students. As a result, 23 student chapters in the Cal State system are no longer recognized as official student groups and have lost free access to rooms in which to hold meetings and to student activities fairs for recruitment efforts.

PROTECT YOURSELF WITH FREE RESOURCES

What’s the solution to protecting yourself from legal attacks? In a word: “religify.” When you religify your ministry or faith-based business, you specify all your beliefs and act in accordance with all of those beliefs through proper documentation and enforcement of policies.

This includes examining articles of incorporation, bylaws, employee handbooks, policies & procedures, independent contractor agreements, and other documentation to ensure that churches, ministries, and faith-based businesses are prepared and protected against legal and financial ruin from individuals and organizations who are offended by traditional religious viewpoints—and seek to litigate employment or discrimination claims to further a larger political or cultural agenda.

Liberty Institute’s constitutional attorneys have created free-of-charge Religious Liberty Templates and Guides to use as a resource in drafting bylaws, articles of incorporation, employment manuals, discipline policies, and other corporate documents to try to avoid risk exposure. Churches, ministries and faith-based businesses are encouraged to work diligently to ensure their beliefs are written down, codified and enforced so that they have the tool kit needed to prove the sincerity of their faith—and protect themselves from coming legal attacks.

For more information about Liberty Institute’s free-of-charge Religious Liberty Templates and Guides, please visit www.LibertyInstitute.org/audit or call (972) 941-4444.


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Portraits of Courage: High School Salutatorian Brooks Hamby Continues to Stand for Students’ Rights to Religious Expression



About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.

Portraits of Courage: High School Salutatorian Brooks Hamby Continues to Stand for Students’ Rights to Religious Expression

Reconnecting with Liberty Institute clients and people of faith whose steadfastness and past legal victories continue to touch America today . . .



Last year at this time, Brooks Hamby was getting ready to graduate from high school. He was about to be chosen as the salutatorian of Brawley Union High School in Brawley, California, and would be asked to write a graduation speech. There was no doubt that Hamby, a devout evangelical Christian, would include references to God in what he would say to his fellow students.


Brooks had written his speech as a prayer, including the sentence: 

“Heavenly Father, in all times, let us always be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us.”

He ended up rewriting his speech two more times—each time receiving it back from school officials with all religious references crossed out in black, as if the school was attempting to block out obscenity or obscure classified material.

On the day of the ceremony, Brooks and his parents were called to see the principal and were notified by the school district that if Brooks “interjects religious content, the sound will be cut off, and a disclaimer to the entire audience must be made explaining the district’s position.” Brooks didn’t want any trouble—but neither could he compromise his faith and his convictions, so he wrote a fourth version of his speech and prepared to deliver it at his graduation a few hours later that night. He made mention of the previous three versions of his speech and included references to the Bible and his Christian faith.

Amazingly, the school did not silence Brooks’ microphone and allowed him to finish his speech. But in response to the school district’s rejection of Brooks’ graduation speech, Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys sent a demand letter seeking a public statement from the district exonerating Hamby of any wrongdoing and an affirmation that such censorship will not occur in the future.

Today, as a college freshman at Stanford University, Brooks knows what is at stake for all people of faith today—graduation speakers and otherwise. “If this challenge to religious liberty can occur in Brawley,” he says, “it can happen anywhere.”

He recently shared his thoughts about standing up for his religious liberty rights . . . what the legal support and expertise of Liberty Institute has meant to him . . . and how he hopes graduating seniors who are giving speeches this graduation season will be encouraged to stand for their lawful religious expression in our nation’s schools.

***

It’s been almost a year since you had your graduation address censored. Do you remember how that felt?

When my speech was denied and censored three times and was told the microphone would be cut if I mentioned my faith, I was really pretty shocked and disappointed. I was looking to share a brief positive message with my graduating class, something to inspire and give hope for our lives as we move past high school. Unfortunately, my school did not believe that the mention of God as a part of that was appropriate.

If you had known about Liberty Institute at the time, would you have called them after your speech was first censored by the principal?

Without a doubt. When the school denied and censored my speeches, stating that the inclusion of "Jesus" or "God" was unconstitutional, I knew that something wasn't right. But no matter how polite or how much evidence I gave to show them that it was legally okay to mention my faith, they didn't respond well. Had I known about Liberty Institute before I gave my final speech, I believe the school would have either allowed me to give one of my original speeches, or be held accountable for censoring personal religious speech.

After you contacted Liberty Institute, how did you feel about their efforts on your behalf?

I cannot commend Liberty Institute enough for their professionalism and swiftness in dealing with my case. They were always there to give support and help to me when I needed it most. Liberty Institute is truly dedicated to the protection of religious liberty across America and takes every effort to make sure that the rights of people of faith are not infringed.

You were interviewed by some major news outlets (including FOX News) about your story. What was it like to share your story with such a large audience?

My hometown, Brawley, is a pretty small town in an agricultural area. I would have never expected firstly to have been denied the ability to share my faith there, but secondly, that such attention would be drawn after I was told by the school I could not and would not be allowed to give my speech.

Quite honestly, I was incredibly nervous before giving the speech, and in interviews afterward. I wasn't looking to make trouble or a fuss with my speech. I just wanted to share a good word and personal experience which included my faith with my class. But I felt it was important to share this experience, because if this challenge to religious liberty can occur in Brawley, it can happen anywhere.

Do you think more and more students across the country will face similar  censorship just like you did?

I believe so. After I had given my speech, my grandparents told me about their third grade teacher opening up the Bible to be read every morning, or saying the Lord's Prayer alongside the Pledge of Allegiance. Last year, I was told that the inclusion of "Jesus" was unconstitutional and the district would pull the mic if I decided to say that name. Schools across the country are either fearful of lawsuits, misunderstand the protection of religious expression, or both.

Did your experience open your eyes to the threats to religious freedom in America today?

Despite all that happened over my short speech, at the end of it all I was able to realize that discrimination based on religious expression is not a novel or isolated issue. There are thousands of incidents annually, and my case was simply one of the many.

Where are you going to college and what are you studying?

I am a student at Stanford University, currently undeclared, considering History or Political Science.

Have you seen any type of religious discrimination there?

College really is unique in two main ways. In one sense, outright "legal" religious discrimination based on rules or administration does not really occur. Students have much more leeway in terms of free speech and expression on a college campus than a high school one, which is fantastic.

However, college is much different in the sense that there is a generally cynical view of being religious or attending church. Many times, the mention of faith is not welcome to many, and as a result, many others have never even been exposed to Christianity or even having never gone to church. This presents a unique opportunity to share God's love with those, who are willing to explore and accept, especially because you are free to do so.

Have you been asked to speak publicly about your experience?

I had the privilege to attend the Values Voter Summit last fall and share my experiences with my graduation speech censorship. It is so important for people to know they are not alone, and that there are thousands across the country who have had their religious freedom challenged, and that support from members of your community, people across the country, and especially Liberty Institute who are incredibly supportive of the right to speak about your faith.

Why is it important that organizations like Liberty Institute exist today?

Liberty Institute is a strong organization that has the ability to right wrongs and protect our foundational freedoms, most importantly freedom of religion and freedom of speech. I believe the only limit to what Liberty Institute can do is just being known to those who need help most like I did. Liberty Institute has all the right people and resources and is absolutely dedicated to protecting religious freedom.

What’s your advice to graduating valedictorians and salutatorians who are people of faith and who are drafting their graduation speeches right now?

As I said in my speech last year, “Be the salt of the earth. Be strong and stand for your convictions and stand for what is right, what is ethical, what is moral and what is Godly, no matter what is the cost to you. Stand for what is good wherever you go and whatever you do.”

As these high school grads are entering the next step in their lives,
they should stand for their convictions and not be silenced by those who seek to censor their faith and misconstrue our core freedoms.

***

If you are a student who has been given the privilege of addressing your classmates at graduation this year and want to make sure that what you say reflects your values, please contact Liberty Institute. Staff attorneys are ready to evaluate your speech against what your school requires and the Constitution permits.

Also, please contact Liberty Institute at info@libertyinstitute.org or call (972) 941-4444 if you have had your religious liberty rights violated, or know of a graduate who has.


Please click here if you would like to give a donation to help defend and restore religious freedom.


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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.LibertyInstitute.org.