The State of Christian Free Speech in America
This report is taken from a series of Public Policy Sessions at the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Convention 2017. Ratio Christi was blessed to have an exhibit booth at this convention and someone attending the sessions.
Three clients of the Christian legal firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) took the platform at the NRB convention to talk about their legal battles – lawsuits which stem from challenges to their Christian free speech:
-A wedding cinematography couple, Carl and Angel Larsen of Telescope Media Group;
-Pre-school director Annette Kiehne representing Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center in Columbia, Missouri;
-Former fire chief Kelvin Cochran of the Atlanta Fire Department.
The pending court appearances and outcome of their cases and others could possibly determine our future religious freedom in America. ADF Senior Counsel Erik Stanley emceed the session. This article now includes an important update on the Trinity Lutheran case! Read below.
Portions of the text describing this session are paraphrased or quoted from a March 2017 NRB press release. The sections in italics are added from our own notes taken on site.
Stanley stated in the press release:
I firmly believe that within the next decade or so how Christians are going to be treated in employment, in the public square, in churches [is] going to be decided in court cases, in the halls of Congress, in administrations. Christians must return to the understanding that religious liberty is an “unalienable right” that should not turn on the whim of who is in office.
The Larsens have filed a “pre-enforcement challenge” to an existing law in their home state of Minnesota that would require them to make films of same-sex weddings if they create movies of traditonal weddings between a man and a woman.
Stanley said in the session that by winning a free enforcement ruling, it would declare their rights to do the kind of videos they want (wedding stories about traditional marriages). Marriage is central in the Larsen's lives. They've spent time with college students and counseling married couples.
Stanley adds that lawsuits against religious businesses are going on across the country. “It could soon also affect advertising as well as the actual business. These cases take away the freedom from people to live as they want. There are already examples of churches not only being told what they can say, but what they must say.”
“Telescope exists to glorify God through top quality media production,” Carl Larsen told NRB participants. [We have] “a conviction that nobody should be forced to work or speak or say anything that’s a violation of their deeply held beliefs.”
If the Larsens lose their challenge, they could face up to $25,000 in fines and 90 days in jail for refusing to film a same-sex wedding in the future, should any gay couple decide to bring charges against them.
In the Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center case, the state rejected Trinity Lutheran’s application to be part of a program using recycled tires to provide safer, rubberized surfaces for children’s playgrounds because, according to the state, including it in the program would abridge a Missouri law barring government funding of religion. Stanley will argue the case before the U.S. Supreme Court April 19.
This case started when Trinity received a letter from the state saying that out of the 14 applicants for the safe surface playground, they were the fifth ones to be approved. However within a couple of weeks, the church had received a letter rescinding the grant on the basis of a violation of separation of church and state, since it was state funds in the grant.
In the Trinity playground case, children from the neighborhood use the playground outside of school hours – not just children who go to school there. Director Kiehne said,
It feels like a double standard, and we would just like the Supreme Court to do away with the double standard and rule in our favor so children can be just as safe on our playground as they could on any other neutral playground.
Stanley said Trinity’s case is a “sleeper case, but this kind of case will set the principles for the free exercise of religion moving forward for the next few decades.”
UPDATE: In June, 2017, the U.S. Supreme court ruled in favor of Trinity Lutheran, honoring religious liberty and the equality of religious citizens. From Alliance Defending Freedom's Press Release:
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the government cannot exclude churches and other faith-based organizations from a secular government program simply because of their religious identity.
“Today is a momentous day for freedom,” said ADF President, CEO, and General Counsel Michael Farris. “We didn’t ask for special treatment. We asked for equal treatment for people of faith. And the court agreed that the government cannot discriminate against people of faith by treating them unequally.”
The case of Kelvin Cochran who was dismissed as Atlanta’s fire chief has also made some national news reports. He was fired for writing about the biblical view of marriage and sexuality in a men’s devotional book (Who Told You That You Were Naked?). His challenge to his removal is prepared to go to court.
Atlanta officials fired Cochran even though an investigation showed he had not discriminated against any employees based on his beliefs. Cochran says that his past experiences, facing discrimination as a black firefighter in Shreveport, Louisiana, made him determined not to discriminate against anyone when he became a leader.
Cochran says that for the book, he was simply applying the biblical principles he was raised with, and it was a small portion of the book dealing with sexual sin. It said, "Christian men are still vacillating between naked and clothed with sexual sin.” The book was shown to a gay councilman in Atlanta who started a lawsuit with the claim that holding biblical views made Cochran unfit for public office.
Cochran had written the book on his own time and with permission from his job. He sat through weeks of depositions. He said,
I realized God’s been preparing me for this all my life. Christian lives are to be highs and lows and we are built up for the glory of God through suffering. God searches for a heart that is his.
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