Part of our series of interviews connected with the movie God's Not Dead 2.
God’s Not Dead 2 tells the story of a public school teacher, “Grace Wesley” (played by Melissa Joan Hart), whose Christian faith and career come under attack after she answers a student’s question about Jesus in class. A zealous civil liberties group files suit, to make an example of her in its quest to remove God from public discourse.
If the story has a “ripped from the headlines” feel, it’s for good reason: More than twenty-five court cases involving Christians who were sued for expressing their faith in public settings are cited in the film’s credits as an example of the controversies occurring every day on the subject. Most of those cases were handled in court by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
Erik Stanley, Esquire, serves with ADF as senior counsel and director of the Center for Christian Ministries. He oversees all litigation efforts to maintain the autonomy of the church and to ensure its freedoms are protected under the First Amendment. Since joining ADF in 2007, Stanley has focused on religious liberty and constitutional law.
We had the opportunity to speak with Stanley about a major case he defended that inspired a key subplot of the film: Pastors being compelled by subpoena to turn over copies of their sermons to government authorities. That scenario happens in the film to “Reverend Dave” (David A.R. White) – and also happened in real life in Houston.
In 2014, Houston city officials attempted to subpoena sermons and other communications belonging to several area pastors in a lawsuit in which the pastors were not even involved. Stanley sued the city to have the order withdrawn, and won (Woodfil v. Parker case Quash Brief).
RC: In real life, why should people be concerned about cases like the one against the teacher in God’s Not Dead 2?
ES: We can all agree that religious liberty is very much in peril these days. The rights of Christians are under attack on school campuses, in the public square, and anywhere Christians are trying to express their faith.
RC: Can you give an example of a real case ADF has handled with a teacher?
ES: Professor Mike Adams at the University of North Carolina's Wilmington campus. We won that case.
(See Adams v. Trustees of the University of North Carolina – Wilmington. Adams was an atheist when he began teaching there; he became a Christian several years later, and it was proven that he was denied a promotion to full professor based on discrimination against his Christian worldview.)
RC: What does ADF feel is the biggest current or future area of concern for American Christians over freedom of religious speech, and how can we best protect ourselves without being silenced?
ES: Freedom of conscience is the biggest concern – how Christians can live out their faith. Many of these cases came out of the sexual revolution. For example, a florist desiring to serve only marriages that align with her faith-based beliefs on marriage. She has put her whole livelihood on the line. On college campuses, how will the next generation of students be able to express their faith?
The best thing we can do is just stand. ADF takes these cases in order to protect the gospel and the right of Christians to defend their faith. Christians have to stand for what we believe and bring these cases to light. When we show up, we win – more often than not by God’s grace. Over the next decade I believe there will be great battles fought in the courtroom for religious freedom.
RC: In the movie, why is the civil liberties attorney character allowed to use what transpired between teacher “Grace” and student “Brooke” outside of school?
ES: There are a number of things that can happen in lawsuits that make them go different ways. The first kind of spark of violation of religion freedom has the best chance of being protected if good legal advice is sought out.
RC: The attorney character persuades “Brooke’s” parents to bring the case against “Grace.” Recently in Florida, there was a years-long case against Christian coaches. It was found the attorneys suing against freedom of religious speech tried to take the case to higher court even after the student who hired them dropped out. Would they be allowed to do that? (Allen v. School Board for Santa Rosa, based on an earlier case of a minor student’s complaint against religious expression.)
ES: They wouldn’t be allowed. The offended student would have to express their viewpoint. I’ve defended school districts in freedom of religion cases and there must really be a student who brings the case. The school district has a right to know who is prosecuting the suit and what they object to. This must be done aggressively, employing all legal means possible to assure proper defense. If the suing legal firm doesn’t have a client, they don’t have a case.
RC: According to the attorney in the movie, “Brooke” is not allowed to testify because she is only seventeen. Most television shows portray that children older than twelve are allowed to testify. Is that only in custody cases?
ES: This is at the discretion of the judge in any case. When students get close to majority age (eighteen) they can certainly testify.
RC: Would anything about this case have been different if the charges had been brought against a student sharing an answer instead of the teacher?
ES: We’ve had cases like this – students wanting to add their faith to an assignment when it is perfectly fine to do so. In one case, a teacher gave a student a “zero” in an art assignment for including John 3:16. We won this lawsuit. The students need to know they do have rights and to stand up for them. They don’t need to check their faith at the school door.
So many schools are ignoring students’ freedom of expression rights. Administrators think they can ride roughshod over students’ rights, but they can’t be allowed to do so.
RC: Do you see cases like this happening more at the kindergarten through twelfth grade level or the university level?
ES: It seems there will be an uptick in university cases as well as still in K-12. The environment on university campuses is really hostile to religious expression. We’ll see more of that.
RC: Regarding the pastors’ case which ADF won in Houston and is paralleled in the movie – there were repercussions to your case, like citizens’ signatures on petitions being thrown out. What other repercussions or precedents could be foreseen as still a threat to pastors or churches from this case?
ES: Houston was a wake-up call for a number of pastors. It used to be accepted that sermons were off limits – we knew the government wouldn’t intrude. Houston was a massive intrusion for the purpose of intimidating pastors not to speak out against city ordinances (in that instance, it was a transgender bathroom ordinance). Although we won, these intimidation tactics might be used in the future when we try to stand up.
What I love about ADF is the first word in our name, “Alliance.” We must all stand together to defend religious freedom. Fortunately, there was a great public outcry against the city’s desire to see these sermons. If the pastors had given over their sermons and not fought it, pastors’ rights in the pulpit might have been chilled for the future.
**Students, teachers, and parents can get ADF’s resources on religious freedom at school ahead of time to be more informed of their rights on campus.
Ratio Christi thanks Grace Hill Media and Pure Flix Entertainment for the opportunity to do this interview connected with the movie. See our other completed interview so far, with actor Sadie Robertson.
Photo courtesy of Grace Hill Media and Pure Flix Entertainment.
Content in blogs does not necessarily represent Ratio Christi’s views. Details