A Lesson Learned the Hard Way

Citizens concerned about attacks on religious liberty cannot depend on school boards to protect the religious liberties of their children, especially when the school board allows more public inquiry and discussion about rugby than it does a far-reaching settlement agreement drafted by the ACLU.

A few months ago we reported the ACLU had sued the Cheatham County Board of Education over various allegedly egregious religious indoctrination activities. Well, the matter came to a conclusion this week, and the results taught us a lesson the hard way.

When the lawsuit was first filed, the Alliance Defense Fund, an alliance of Christian attorneys committed to defending First Amendment religious liberty rights without charge, tried to find someone who would be willing to be represented by them. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, no one was ever found.

The reason the Alliance Defense Fund tries to find a student, student group (like FCA or Young Life) or faculty member to represent is that it allows that person or group to become a party to the lawsuit. You might wonder, why would anyone want to volunteer to be a party to a lawsuit?

The reason is that unless some group like the Alliance Defense Fund, that really knows First Amendment law, has a place at the “litigation table,” the school board is more likely to “lay down” than to stand up for the First Amendment rights of their students and faculty. And, sure enough, the “settlement” the Cheatham County school board reached with the ACLU shows why you can’t depend on your school board to put up much of a fight. There are a couple of reasons why this is so.

Why School Boards Won’t Defend Your Rights Much

First, the school board attorney typically has limited knowledge about First Amendment law, not surprising since First Amendment claims aren’t everyday legal fare for them. In other words, your local school board most likely has a non-expert, non-seasoned lawyer when it comes to First Amendment litigation going up against sharp, veteran ACLU lawyers. It’s sort of David v. Goliath with the school board attorney the one with the slingshot (such a biblical reference, if not already illegal in a public school, probably will be illegal if we don’t pay attention).

Second, school boards are generally averse to having people fuss at them for wasting taxpayer dollars fighting over religion. And in a politically correct, don’t-be-perceived-as-intolerant-at-any-cost environment, courage is even harder to come by in elected officials.

Of course, it’s a sad commentary that school boards, by their actions, are “teaching” their students that it is not worth their effort to fight for constitutional rights or to put up with a little venom from a vocal minority. And it’s sad that enough of us don’t help them stand up by standing beside them. We may save money in the short run by avoiding legal fees but find we’ve lost our religious liberties in the process.

Is Rugby More Important Than Religious Liberty?

Anyway, the Chairman of the Cheatham County Ministerial Alliance asked the school board to delay the vote for two weeks for the citizens to have time to read the proposed settlement and have input with their elected official. No such luck! The school board approved the settlement anyway without opportunity for the citizens to know what was really going on. Reports have it that the board had more open meetings for the public to discuss some issues about rugby than this vote on religious liberty.

So, here are some lessons that need to be learned.

When the ACLU sues any government entity, citizens in that community should never, ever rely on the government’s attorney to protect their religious liberty—call us, call ADF, but get help. And when experts like ADF tell you what needs to be done, do it. Don’t assume someone else is going to get involved. And for sure don’t assume you’ll get a chance to express your opinion on an ACLU-approved settlement proposal before it gets accepted.

The other lesson is that we need to pay attention to who is running for our school boards. These are important positions. Much of the so-called “culture war” is being waged in our schools for the minds of our children. And if your school board member thinks rugby is more important than religious liberty, then the next lesson is this: Learn how to qualify as a candidate for the next school board election and learn how to run a winning campaign.

Girls Gone Wild Teaches Valuable Lesson

Withdrawal of a “social agenda” bill by legislators at the first sign of objection by big business should teach those of us who care about these issues that we must make sure our voice is heard.

Many of us have seen the brazen advertisements on cable television for Girls Gone Wild. The ads leave little to the imagination. In fact, applying the Supreme Court’s “community standards” test for what is illegal obscenity, some communities in Tennessee might find the actual video obscene. But what happened with legislation trying to keep illegal obscene materials out of our homes demonstrates the challenges of the legislative process and teaches all of us who care about social issues a lesson.

Current Tennessee law makes the distribution of obscene material a criminal offense, even as is the case in other states (probably all of them). Obscene material is also not protected by the First Amendment. But Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Dickson) learned three years ago that there was potentially a “loophole” in the law.

Trying to Closing a Legal Loophole

After receiving several calls from constituents who had been caught unawares of the shocking Girls Gone Wild advertisement, Sen. Jackson asked his local District Attorney if he would pursue criminal charges under the obscenity statute. Unfortunately, getting to the actual maker of obscene material is not legally possible unless the maker of the material has some more or less direct connection to Tennessee, meaning a successful prosecution of the maker of Girls Gone Wild is not likely. But when Sen. Jackson asked about going after the cable television companies in Tennessee that may show illegal obscene material or advertise the sale of illegal obscene material, the local District Attorney told him that Tennessee’s law needed to make clear that broadcasting or transmitting by cable or satellite illegal obscene material or advertising illegal obscene material was covered by Tennessee’s existing obscenity law.

So, in 2007, Sen. Jackson filed a bill on the subject. It made showing obscene adult material and advertising obscene material a Class A misdemeanor and limited showing advertisements that were obscene to minors (not as hard core as adult obscenity) until the late night hours.

That year, the bill passed the Senate, 31 to 0 with all 31 of the Senators voting affirmatively being added as sponsors. At Sen. Jackson’s request, in my lobbyist capacity, I tried to help his House sponsor get it through a House subcommittee in 2008, but it faced a procedural obstacle and ultimately failed.

So Sen. Jackson filed the bill again in this General Assembly and the decision was made to try a different sponsor in the House, so Rep. Debra Maggart (R- Hendersonville) was asked to sponsor the bill in the House, and she agreed. (Learn more about Senate Bill 257 and House Bill 624.)

Almost three weeks ago, the bill was passed by the Senate Commerce Committee, 8 votes to zero. Then the bill met its unfortunate demise.

A People without a Voice?

After the bill sailed through the Senate Committee without a single “no” vote, AT&T’s Tennessee cable company expressed concerns about the bill to the House sponsor, saying that it had little control over advertising and did not want to be criminally liable for something it could not control. Fair enough. But more information was needed about how the process of purchasing and placing advertisements worked within the cable industries and the relationship with the channels they carry. So there was a meeting to see if some language could be worked out to address the operational issues but also make sure cable companies were responsible for the programmatic elements of broadcasting over which they had some control.

In fact, it appeared that at least three other states had laws prohibiting the showing of illegal obscene materials and two seemed to deal with advertising for sale illegal obscene materials. And, in any event, it also appeared as if cable companies might already be criminally liable under federal law for showing obscene programming. (In case you’re wondering why a state law would even be needed, states often pass laws that mirror federal laws in order for the state to prosecute criminal activity when the federal government doesn’t care or won’t enforce its own laws.)

Without going into unnecessary details, the bottom line is that Rep. Maggart apparently decided she didn’t want to pursue any compromise language this session and, with the permission of the Majority Caucus Chairman, Glen Casada (R- College Grove), withdrew the bill from consideration without notice to anyone. When a bill is “withdrawn,” it is effectively killed since, technically, the bill no longer exists.

So, the issue is dead again until the next General Assembly. Certainly business concerns can be and are legitimate and no one should be faulted for raising them nor should a legislator be faulted for taking them into consideration and trying to address them. But when a bill on a social issue gets withdrawn at the first sign of opposition from big business, it can sure make you wonder if regular citizens who are concerned about what their children might be exposed to have equal standing on the Hill.

But one thing is for sure: If regular citizens want to have a voice, then they need someone to tell them what is going on, which we try to do, whether it be Democrats or Republicans involved. But citizens also need to have their email and phone ready for action. A silent voice will not be heard. That’s the lesson we need to learn.

Is the Death Penalty for Homosexuality not Newsworthy?

That a chaplain for Muslim students at Vanderbilt can publicly say that he accepts the Islamic teaching that homosexuals should be put to death is un-newsworthy compared to some vandal spray-painting “Muslims go home” on the wall of a mosque shows the bias of Tennessee newspapers that covered the latter event, but not the former.

A couple of the major newspapers in Tennessee treat opposition to the homosexual political agenda as demonstrative of “intolerance,” “divisiveness,” and “homophobia.” Conservative opposition to that agenda is effectively seen and portrayed as damnable and, of course, newsworthy. But their treatment of a recent situation in Nashville lays bare the bias of traditional news media … not to mention the irrationality of those who saw nothing about which to be concerned.

At the end of last month, the Muslim Students Association at Vanderbilt University hosted an event sponsored by the university’s Project Dialogue committee. The topic was “Common Ground: Being Muslim in the Military.”

One of the panelists, Awadh A. Binhazim, is an unpaid adjunct professor of Islam at Vanderbilt’s Divinity School (according to the university’s webpage) and serves as the chaplain for Muslim students at the university. During the question and answer time, a student member of Vanderbilt’s chapter of Youth for Western Civilization asked the question: “Under Islamic law is it punishable by death if you are homosexual?”

The answer was, “Yes. It is punishable by death.” Moreover, at the beginning of the exchange about Islamic teaching regarding the death penalty for homosexual activity, the professor said, “I don’t have a choice as a Muslim to accept or reject teachings. I go with what Islam teaches.”

Where’s the Usual Alarm and Outrage?

Now you would think this would be alarming. Out and About, a Nashville-based news publication of interest primarily to the homosexual community, wrote an article about it as did Nashville’s City Paper. But both articles seemed to be more concerned about the Professor’s relationship with Vanderbilt and whether the University should be “tagged” with the Professor’s comments than it was about the comment itself.

And while I could have missed it, I never saw an editorial in any major newspaper in Tennessee editorializing about the subject. I have no doubt that had I said that practicing homosexuals deserved the death penalty, I would have been lampooned and editorialized all across the state, maybe even the country, ironically when such a comment would be clearly contrary to the teaching of virtually all Christian denominations in the world today.

But this professor’s statement is not contrary to current Muslim teachings, to Islamic law. In fact, in Saudi Arabia and Iran several thousands of homosexuals have been put to death because they follow Islamic law on this point.

And noteworthy by its omission was any attempt by the professor to qualify his statement with something like, “But that is the teaching of Muslim extremists” or “I personally do not believe that.” No. He said that he has no “choice … to accept or reject teachings” of Islam, but “must go with what Islam teaches.”

More Offended by the Question than the ‘Theoretical Response’

Oh, I know some will say, “yeah, but the Old Testament law of the Hebrews called for the death penalty for homosexuality.” But that is a diversion; it is not a comparison of the current understanding of the treatment to be given homosexuals by one religion to the current understanding of such treatment by another religion. Such comments reflect an apparent desire to be blind to the reality of what the Muslim professor said.

In fact, the Rev. Gary White, interim Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt, and other students seemed offended by the question and thought it irrelevant to the topic. Rev. White even referred to the answer as a “theoretical response” and said, “Our students have no reason to be afraid or fear him at all.”

If he weren’t trying to be serious, I’d think he was trying to be funny. When those who believe as Professor Binhazim take over this country, as Islam teaches should be done (actually, it’s not just us, but the whole world), he’ll wish he’d taken the statement literally, not theoretically. Paraphrasing the Rev. Niemoller’s comments about the Nazis coming for him after he remained silent about what they were doing, “Reverend, when the Islamic Clerics following Sharia law come looking for the infidels, you’ll be one of them … and not just ‘theoretically.’ ”

I remember in 1980, sitting in the Student Center at UTC and having a practicing Muslim student tell me he would kill “me right then and there, but the time and situation was not right.” This is serious stuff. Faithful Muslims are like the professor; moderates who would not agree are considered apostate by the faithful.

But the irrationality doesn’t stop here. Some couldn’t even see the relevancy of the question to the topic, even after it was explained to them. As the student who asked the question explained to a fellow student who condemned him for asking the question: “If I was a homosexual in the military, I would want to know if the religion of the person fighting next to me demands my death. That would be significant to me.” Sadly, the fellow student still didn’t see the relevancy.

How Modern Liberals Define ‘Hate’

But back to the question of bias. While this was not newsworthy to our state’s major newspapers, the Tennessean found it newsworthy that someone had spray-painted “Muslims go home” on an outside wall of the mosque. Vandalism happens all the time, but you see, what made this a big to-do was that this was a possible “hate crime” that the police and the federal government are looking into. But apparently saying as a teacher of one’s religion you follow what your religion teaches and it teaches death to homosexuals is not very hateful.

Now, I am not dismissing the fact that spray-painting something on another person’s property is wrong.  But that act of vandalism, when compared to a teacher of Islam in our state saying that he agrees with Islam that homosexuals should be put to death … come on, no news story? No editorial? I guess believing such a thing and stating it publicly isn’t very hateful, as modern liberals now define the term.

Give me a break, will you? Particularly the next time I oppose some piece of legislation like ENDA (the acronym for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act) that would force para-church ministries and religious schools to hire people whose behavior is contrary to their religious teaching.

Surely that’s not as newsworthy or as homophobic by comparison as believing homosexuals should be put to death … even if only “theoretically.”

How to Chain Down Liberal Judges

When asked how the Supreme Court should view precedent, Justice Thomas said, “The ultimate precedent is the Constitution,” and “not what we say it is,” but “what it actually says.” Only this understanding will counter the “living constitution” that has breathed life into the “Leviathan” of big government.

In a speech earlier this month at Stetson Law School in Florida, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas addressed the Court’s recent decision regarding corporate expenditures in connection with political campaigns. Controversial as the decision was, something he said surely was more controversial to liberals and law professors in our nation’s “elite” law schools.

Liberals and a significant number of law professors, if not a strong majority in our nation’s most prominent law schools, believe in the “living constitution,” an approach to constitutional interpretation which “breathes life” into the dead, ancient words of a bygone era. For them, the plain language of the Constitution must be liberated from the shackles of history and infused with meaning based on current societal mores.

While this approach surely would keep the Constitution “current” in loosing it from history and original intent, it also breathes life into a judiciary that has become an aristocratic, sovereign body that has itself become the supreme law of the land. And it frustrates the purpose of the Constitution as described by President Thomas Jefferson, a favorite of liberals who like to use his letter to the Danbury Baptist Association as a means of infusing a “separation of church and state” into the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Jefferson said, “In questions of power then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”

In essence, the “chains” of the Constitution, intended to protect our liberties from abuses of power that would threaten our liberty, are now seen as shackles from which we must be liberated if we are to be free. What a perversion of history by modern-day liberal legal scholars, which makes the comments by Justice Thomas so refreshing to those who believe in limited, constitutional government and so irritating to those who do not.

In view of the fact that the Court’s corporate spending decision reversed existing precedent on campaign finances, he was asked how he thought the Court should view precedence and the legal doctrine of stare decisis (meaning a decision made should stand). Here was his answer:

If [precedence] is wrong, the ultimate precedent is the Constitution, and it’s not what we say it is. It’s what it actually says. And I think we have to be humble enough to say we were wrong.

To which I can only say, Justice Thomas, long may your days be on the Court, and may more Americans see that they need to be set free from the shackles, not of the Constitution, but of tyrannical judges who, with their “living constitution,” have breathed life into the great “Leviathan” of big government. Let’s free ourselves from judicial activists and “chain” them down with the Constitution.

Teaching Colleges a Lesson

When a pro-life student group at MTSU got hit with a fee other students groups have not been required to pay, the Alliance Defense Fund stepped in, and the University retreated. Perhaps that will send a message to other universities in Tennessee: Don’t discriminate against conservatives.

College campuses can be a cesspool of political correctness and intolerance for those students and student groups that don’t conform to liberal ideology. When one state college recently tried to impose a unique burden on a conservative student group, they found out someone is watching.

Recently a student group at Middle Tennessee State University, Pro-Life Collegians, applied to present a pro-life message on campus through Justice for All’s pro-life exhibits. Officials at MTSU approved the Pro-Life Collegians’ application, but with a precondition that it had to pay for security for the event. Even though no written policy validates such charges, which aren’t required for other student group events, the university insisted that Pro-Life Collegians pay for security for its event.

Pro-Life Collegians knew that they should not be treated differently from other campus student groups that sponsor events and called on the Alliance Defense Fund’s Center for Academic Freedom (ADF) to help them challenge the university’s discriminatory approval of their application.

ADF wrote the university to tell them that the fee was unconstitutional because such a vague and unwritten standard empowered the university to enforce or waive the fee requirement based upon their approval or disapproval of a student group’s message. The letter also stated that allowing the uncapped fee gave MTSU officials unlimited authority to silence and charge any disfavored group as they see fit, in violation of the free-speech rights of students protected by the First Amendment. Essentially, according to ADF Litigation Staff Counsel Joe Martins, who wrote the letter, pro-life student groups were being penalized and discriminated against for expressing their beliefs.” And the message in ADF’s letter was clear: “We’ll sue if necessary.”

Fortunately, the university changed its mind and gave deference to the group’s First Amendment right by retracting the fee.

So, while the University’s arbitrary application of a security fee requirement could have “chilled” the rights of student groups on campus because of the burden a fee would impose on presenting their group’s views, let’s hope the intervention by ADF on behalf of conservatives on this campus will “chill” a little of the political correctness and intolerance toward conservatives that is probably taking place on other college campuses and classrooms in Tennessee. There may just be someone watching who is big enough and willing to take them on.