In what the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) considers a victory for free speech, a sign reading "God Bless America" has been returned to a public display at a North Carolina library, after it was removed on suspicion of violating the separation of church and state.
"This situation reveals two fundamental misunderstandings of the law," Travis Barham, ADF spokesman and litigation staff counsel told The Christian Post in a Wednesday interview. Nevertheless, Barham praised the officials who "quickly realized that they had overstepped their bounds and quickly took corrective action."
In the entryway to the Fairview Library in North Carolina lies a display case which the library allows community groups to reserve on a first-come, first-serve basis. Last month, a private organization set up a Constitution Week display that included a God Bless America sign. A library official allegedly removed the sign, claiming "the sign could not be displayed because someone might complain about it, even though the library had received no complaints," according to the ADF website.
Barham explained two arguments behind such thinking. According to one line of thought, "public officials have some responsibility to protect people from speech that they would rather not hear or see." Also, because the United States has an establishment clause separating church and state, "the Constitution requires officials to search and conceal."
These arguments fail when compared to the actual law, the ADF lawyer argued. "The First Amendment allows people to say things others would not hear," he explained. Thus, the freedom of speech would mean nothing if one person's complaint forced the government to keep a citizen quiet.
Secondly, Barham argued that "the Supreme Court has been clear that when government officials allow religious speakers the same access to public facilities that other groups have, there's no violation of the Establishment Clause." So long as religious groups are not given preferential treatment, they have the same freedoms as other groups and can express themselves in public.
Following the removal of the sign, ADF sent a letter to the Fairview Library requesting the sign be replaced. The library quickly reversed its decision and replaced the sign. "We're just glad that this library understands this," Barham said.
Nevertheless, this legal misunderstanding is not an isolated incident, the ADF lawyer warned. "We've seen this misunderstanding of the First Amendment in countless other examples," he argued, mentioning a case involving prayer before city council meetings that will soon be heard by the Supreme Court.
"For decades, there have been groups out there like the ACLU, Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which promulgate this idea that religious speech has no right in the public square, that it must somehow be sequestered in private," Barham explained. This view, supported in the media, educational institutions and even lower courts, is strong but inaccurate, he reiterated.
When institutions realize the freedom of religious speech, their decisions embolden faith groups, the ADF lawyer said, noting that it's a positive sign when "government officials realize that religious speech is just as protected as any other speech under the First Amendment."