Over the past week, the American Center for Law and Justice scored two new victories for religious freedom on campus without having to set foot in a courtroom.
In the latest victory, announced Monday, the Christian law firm said Mann Middle School in Colorado Springs, Colo., agreed to allow a 7th grade student to wear a small cross on a chain on campus without having to conceal it.
Two weeks earlier, the school had announced that all students wearing religious jewelry would either have to conceal it or remove it because some people in school are "offended" by the display.
The announcement prompted Cainan Gostnell, a 7th grader at the school, to stop wearing his cross because he feared being punished by the school.
Shortly after, Cainan and his mother contacted the ACLJ, which sent a letter to the school arguing that Cainan has the right to continue wearing his cross on the outside of his clothing under the First Amendment.
"Cainan's cross is a form of symbolic speech," ACLJ Senior Counsel Edward L. White wrote in the Oct. 8 letter.
"Moreover, even if students or staff members are 'offended' by the religious messages expressed by the wearing of such jewelry, that is an insufficient reason for the school to prevent Cainan and others from wearing religious jewelry in school," he added.
Accordingly, the school responded to the ACLJ, saying "Cainan may continue to wear and display his cross at school."
"We are pleased the school district understands and agrees that Cainan's religious expression in school is protected by the First Amendment," commented White after receiving a letter from the school's attorneys. "Without question, censoring a student's religious expression and speech is a violation of the Constitution."
Three days before the victory in Colorado Springs, the ACLJ was hailing the conclusion of another religious freedom case – one related to a public university student in Alabama.
According to ACLJ Chief Counsel Jay Sekulow, the law firm was contacted some time ago by the student, Michala, and her mother, Marlene, after Michala's musical theater class required her to participate in a performance that included two songs that Michala strongly objected to on religious grounds – one that used God's name in vain and one that declares that the Bible is not necessarily true.
Although Michala (whose last name ACLJ withheld) raised her concerns with her professor and the department chair and requested an accommodation due to her religious beliefs, she was told that she only had three options. Michala would either need to take part in the performance, refuse to participate and fail the course, or withdraw from the course. If Michala failed or withdrew, her scholarship would be in jeopardy.
After being told by several individuals that there was nothing that could be done, Michala and her mother contacted the ACLJ, which provided her with a legal argument to present to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, whom she would later meet. With that, the university agreed to accommodate Michala's religious beliefs by waiving the requirement that she take that particular course and allowing her to withdraw from the course without having to forfeit her scholarship.
"The school changed their course of action and started to work with us. They even assured us that the professors involved would be professional and not treat Michala punitively," Marlene informed the ACLJ in a thank you note to the ACLJ.
While the ACLJ applauded the school (the name of which was also withheld) for taking steps to accommodate Michala's faith, the law firm noted that such accommodation is not as common on public university campuses at it ought to be.
Furthermore, ACLJ and other Christian law firms have noted how religious freedom is frequently misunderstood and consequently trampled upon by school officials who are either ignorant of the law or fearful of offending the American Civil Liberties Union, which is notorious for its efforts to remove anything religious from the public square.
According to a recent poll by the First Amendment Center, most Americans (61 percent) can name the freedom of speech as a right guaranteed by the First Amendment. But only 23 percent is able to name the freedom of religion as among the First Amendment rights.
Notably, however, while low for a nation where over 80 percent identify with a religion, the mark for freedom of religion was the second highest among the other First Amendment rights (after freedom of speech) and was the highest recorded by the First Amendment Center for that right since it began its annual poll back in 1997.
With First Amendment issues frequently popping up, the ACLJ makes itself available free-of-charge to provide advice, assistance, and legal representation as an organization that focuses on constitutional law and "is specifically dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, God-given rights."
The Washington, D.C.-based legal group's stated purpose is to educate, promulgate, conciliate, and where necessary, litigate, to ensure that those rights are protected under the law.