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Religious Freedom in Education Can Change America

Justin Butterfield is Senior Counsel and Director of Research and Education for First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans. As part of its mission, the First Liberty Institute has produced an excellent resource, a Religious Liberty Protection Kit for students and teachers.

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Religious Freedom in Education Can Change America

Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. As students, families, teachers, and school administrators return to school for the 2017-2018 school year, we thought it would be a great time to highlight an important resource for students and educators who value the right they have to carry and express their faith at school. Justin Butterfield is here to discuss what students, parents and educators need to know about their religious liberty rights at school.

Justin is Senior Counsel and Director of Research and Education for First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans. As part of its mission, the First Liberty Institute has produced an excellent resource, a Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers, and we’ll be talking to Justin about that today.

Justin Butterfield, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: Thank you for having me! It’s great to be here.

JOHN RUSTIN: Justin, let’s take a step back and talk about the big picture first. What is the proper relationship between faith and religion in education?

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: Faith is central to our lives and impacts every aspect of who we are and what we do, including education. And if you believe the lie that we have to segregate our faith from the other areas of our lives—whether that’s from school, work, or just going about our lives in public—it creates a fractured person who can’t be true to himself or herself. It’s been our experience at First Liberty Institute that it can really sow confusion in students. So, we represented—a couple of years ago now—Mackenzie Fraiser, a six-grade student at Somerset Academy, which is a public charter school in Las Vegas. Mackenzie was given a class assignment to create a PowerPoint presentation entitled, “All About Me,” which was a powerful presentation about her, personally. And it was supposed to include a slide with an inspirational saying that spoke to her, to Mackenzie, and that she viewed as important to her identity. And Mackenzie decided to pick John 3:16 for her inspirational saying, which says, “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in Him shall have everlasting life.” So Mackenzie created the slideshow—the PowerPoint presentation—she put that as her inspirational saying, and her teacher said, “No, you can’t present this to the class. You have to pick a different saying because that’s from the Bible and we can’t have any Bible verses in your class assignments.” So Mackenzie didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know what she could do so she just picked another secular inspirational saying that didn’t have the same meaning to her and she put that on her presentation instead. So then a few weeks later, in another class, Mackenzie was doing a project on self-esteem and she couldn’t think of what she could put in her project and she was talking with her parents about what she could say about her self-esteem and her parents said, “Why don’t you talk about how you have self-esteem and worth because you are made in God’s image.” Mackenzie said, “No I can’t do that,” that it was wrong, and she thought it may even be illegal to mention God in class assignments. And she got that idea because of her “All About You” presentation. So she had been told in one class, “You can’t have John 3:16 in your presentation,” and now she’s got the idea that, “I can’t have that in any school work. I’m not allowed to present the religious aspect of me” even if it’s completely responsive to the class assignment and is what she truly would want to say. Well, Mackenzie’s dad was a pastor and he thought, “This doesn’t seem right.” So he contacted us, at First Liberty. The school was completely in the wrong in this. It’s not what the law requires. The law does not say you cannot express your faith or your religious beliefs in your class assignments. And so we sent the school a demand letter pointing out that they’d actually violated the law, and it was they who had violated her religious liberty rights. But, until that happened, Mackenzie believed that expressing her faith—being true to who she is—is not only wrong, but maybe even illegal. And that’s what’s wrong. So faith should influence our school work, our education, like it influences every aspect of our lives. It’s not something that should just be hidden except for when we’re at church. It’s something that we should be free to express and to portray the true us.

JOHN RUSTIN: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. And unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. We see these types of things happening all across the nation. Justin, how did we get to this place in our nation’s history where so many citizens are often very misled about what our Constitution says or does not say about the supposed “separation of church and state,” especially as it relates to religious expression in our public schools?

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: There are several things that have happened that cause this misconception. And one of them is that very phrase you just mentioned: “separation of church and state.” People hear that phrase and they think there has to be a separation between anything related to the church—anything religious and anything related to our faith—and anything related to the state, including public schools. And that’s just not true. The phrase, “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution. It actually comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association that has nothing to do with saying that you can’t express your faith when you’re in public schools. That’s not at all what that means. What the Constitution actually says is that you have the freedom to exercise your faith and you have free speech so you can share your faith, and the government can’t take that away. What’s happened is that there are organizations—for instance, we deal a lot with a group called The Freedom From Religion Foundation that, every year, sends over a thousand demand letters to schools, to government officials around the country—that just portray this wrong idea that they should clamp down on students who express their faith, that they should not allow that sort of expression, and that’s just wrong. Or, people who just hear that term and they think on their own, they get in their minds their own idea: “We can’t allow that. We have to whitewash faith from the public sphere.” And it’s just not true. So one of the things that we at First Liberty want to do is to educate the public. So we educate school officials, principals, teachers, people in other governmental positions: Here’s what the Constitution actually says. Here’s what you can do and can’t do. And we also educate students and parents so that they know, “Oh, this is actually not okay, what the school district did to me.” So for instance in Mackenzie’s case, her father knew that the way the school treated Mackenzie wasn’t right. Mackenzie didn’t realize that but once her father reached out to us and we were able to send a demand letter and the school agreed, “Oh, you’re right. We did violate Mackenzie’s religious liberty rights.” And then they actually let Mackenzie present her original “All About Me” presentation. So that educated all the other teachers and students in the school that, “Oh, it is okay to be true to yourself and your religious faith. It is okay to express your faith. It’s not illegal or wrong to express faith in schools.”

JOHN RUSTIN: It seems like in these instances that, oftentimes as you did in this circumstance with Mackenzie, it sounds like once you sent a clarifying letter explaining what her rights are and why that is the case, that quite often the schools are very responsive. The school administrators, teachers and others are responsive to that because they understand, “Hey, what I thought was the case is not the case.” It seems that ideally, parents and teachers and students would really understand their rights to live out their faith at school before these issues arise. But unfortunately, that’s not always the circumstance.

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: That’s exactly right. And sometimes students who know what their rights are and stand for their rights still have to fight for their right. We represented Angela Hiltenbrand, who was a senior giving an address at her graduation. She was a valedictorian and she wanted to pray in her valedictorian address and the school said, No.” There was actually a lawsuit and the district judge said that if there’s any mention of amen or Jesus or God that there’d be incarceration. And so we had to take an emergency appeal to the Fifth Circuit to protect Angela’s right to be able to give her own speech that was true to her faith for her graduation address. So the ideal—you’re absolutely right—is to educate people before this happens. Sometimes that’s not enough and we actually have to litigate these issues. And that’s unfortunate when that happens. But our goal is to educate the public so that we don’t have to reach that point.

JOHN RUSTIN: We’re grateful for that. Justin, the introduction to the Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers makes a bold statement that, “religious freedom in education can change America.” Talk about that statement a little bit and the impact that resources like this, and the knowledge that those fundamental rights that we all have to express our religious beliefs at school and elsewhere, why that’s so important.

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: Sure! Let me give you an example that illustrates that. We represented a group of cheerleaders from Kountz, Texas. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a “run-through banner” but the Kountz cheerleaders created a run-through banner, which is basically a big sheet of paper that they wrote a slogan on and before a football game, the football players would run through this banner. So the Kountz cheerleaders were a private club—It wasn’t a school club. It was the cheerleaders acting on their own—They created these banners every week and they said, “Normally our banners are things that are antagonistic towards the other teams,” but the cheerleaders said that they wanted to be more encouraging so they started writing encouraging Bible verses on their run-through banners. And the school said, “No, that’s religion—mixing religion with the school—you can’t do that.” The school actually at one point, went as far as to say everybody attending the game can’t have kind of sign or writing that expresses religion. So you couldn’t have a T-shirt that had a Bible verse on it. So extreme! But that wasn’t legal, so we defended the Kountz cheerleaders. The school has changed their policy and one of the neat things about that is, because the Kountz cheerleaders stood for their rights—and again it took litigation but they stood up for their rights, they stood up for the ability to express their faith on these signs that they paid for and created on their own—because of that, other cheerleaders around the county were inspired by them to do the same thing. And they said, “Look, the cheerleaders in Kountz, Texas stood for their religious liberty rights, they stood up for who they are, and they’re encouraging others with their faith. And we want to do the same thing.” It spread not only to cheerleaders around America, but around the world. They actually had a group of cheerleaders from Egypt who wrote to them and said that they were an inspiration to them. So when people stand up for their religious liberty rights, it doesn’t only protect their rights but it protects the rights of everybody who sees that and it emboldens them to stand up for their faith and to be true to who they are in their faith.

JOHN RUSTIN: That’s great. Justin, what about teachers? I think people who have looked into this topic, at least a little bit, have realized that students have religious liberty rights at school, but some still think that teachers must check their faith at the door when they walk into the schoolhouse. Is that true?

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: No, that’s not true. In fact, the Supreme Court said neither students nor teachers shed their Constitutional rights when they pass through the school gates. So teachers have religious liberty rights too. Now, it’s slightly different: Students are free to express their faith to their peers, to their teachers, to other students, in class assignments. Teachers can express their faith to their peers but they can’t do anything that would coerce a student to participate in a religious activity. So, while students are free to share their faith with other students, a teacher is much more limited in that, in that in sharing with a student, the student needs to have approached the teacher first. So there are a few different limitations on teachers because they are also government employees. But teachers still have religious liberty rights just like students do. We have represented teachers who have been told, “You’re not allowed to hand out a Bible to a student,” and won those cases. So, teachers can express their faith, both to their peers and, occasionally depending on the circumstances, to students as well.

JOHN RUSTIN: Justin, based on your experience, what should students, parents, or teachers do if they believe their First Amendment rights have been violated at school?

JUSTIN BUTTERFIELD: The first thing to do is go to our website at and when you go there you can contact us and tell us what happened. One of our attorneys will look at the situation and see if something happened that actually does violate the law. We can let you know: maybe it’s okay what happened; maybe it’s not okay; we can give you advice; we can send demand letters; and we can help you through those situations if you think something has happened that’s violating your religious liberty rights. The other thing you can do is, on our website, you can click on resources and get one of our religious liberty protection kits. We have, in this area, The Religious Liberty Protection Kit For Students And Teachers that goes through some of these issues in depth and gives citations to cases that explain where the law comes from and can really help you in knowing, “Okay, here’s where the line is. Here’s what the Constitution allows. Here’s what the Constitution does not allow.”

JOHN RUSTIN: Very good. Let me repeat that website, for our listeners, where you can go to learn more about the First Liberty Institute and also to obtain a copy of this resource we’ve been talking about today, The Religious Liberty Protection Kit for Students and Teachers? That’s And with that, Justin Butterfield, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters. We are so grateful for all the great work that you do, defending our very first freedoms, freedom of religion and freedom of speech and just pray for your continued success in all that you do.


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