Archive for the ‘Religious freedom’ Category:
Equal rights statute preserves social, religious liberties
Originally posted on the Houston Chronicle blog.
In the long hours of debate over Mayor Annise Parker’s proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, we have heard a great deal about the faith of Houstonians. Many have cited their religious beliefs as the reason they support the ordinance. Others have invoked religion in opposition. This plurality of opinion is a strong testament to the power of religion to shape our lives and our values.
But in framing their opposition to the ordinance in religious terms, some have argued there is a tension between two American values: equality for all and religious liberty. They claim the ordinance threatens their religious liberty as business owners because it prohibits them from discriminating against customers who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
This argument is based on a faulty premise. Under our constitutional system, religious liberty does not mean, and has never meant, that if people of faith object to a law, their personal beliefs trump other societal values.
Religious freedom is a fundamental American value, the first liberty protected in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. From our country’s founding, we have guarded the right to believe and to worship – or not – according to individual conscience without interference from the state.
The result is that religion flourishes in our society as in no other, as demonstrated by Texas’ own example. According to the Texas Almanac, Texas communities include Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Sikhs and Unitarian Universalists. Each adherent enjoys the right to participate in civic life without fear of being marginalized or excluded because of government favoritism for any one sect.
The mayor’s proposed ordinance is consistent with that robust tradition of religious liberty. In fact, the ordinance protects the free exercise of religion by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of religion. Under the ordinance, people cannot be fired from a job, denied an apartment or refused service at the corner store because of their religion.
Moreover, recognizing the proper limits on government’s ability to intrude on matters of faith, the ordinance excludes houses of worship and religiously affiliated institutions from adhering to the non-discrimination provisions. Churches, synagogues and mosques remain free to determine hiring practices and other internal matters according to the tenets of their respective faiths.
Which brings us to the faulty premise upon which the religious liberty objection to the ordinance is based. The ordinance prohibits discrimination broadly – on the basis of race, age, sex, disability, veterans’ status, religion and more – in an attempt to promote equality for all. For some, this step toward equality, particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Houstonians, is inconsistent with a personal religious belief.
But a law that conflicts with a personal religious belief, no matter how deeply held, is not a violation of religious liberty. Nothing in our Constitution gives people of faith a special exemption from following laws meant to protect everyone. Nor could it. In a country with as many diverse religious traditions as ours, imagine what would happen if each of us could choose, according to our individual beliefs, which laws to follow and which to ignore.
The proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance creates no conflict between equality and religious liberty. The ordinance claims no power to compel any of us to relinquish a sincerely held religious belief, to endorse something we believe profoundly to be immoral or to offer services of which we disapprove. That is not the province of law.
The only thing that the ordinance does or could require is that, whatever our personal beliefs, in our business dealings, we don’t treat people differently for being who they are. If that requirement seems familiar, maybe it’s because so many faith traditions subscribe to the Golden Rule.
All of us should respect the competing points of view expressed as City Council debates the ordinance. But none of us should forget that the principle of equality for all is as essential to the American character as religious liberty. To our good fortune, the proposed Houston Equal Rights Ordinance preserves both.
At a special City Council hearing on Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance that took place Wed., April 29, most residents who testified voiced their unequivocal support for the ordinance. Just 19 people spoke against.
Attend the public meetings on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. To sign up to speak at the Public Session on Tuesday, May 6, you must do so before 1 p.m. the day of the meeting by:
- Calling the City Secretary’s office at 832.393.1100
- Sending an email to email@example.com
- Coming by the office on the public level of the City Hall Annex, 900 Bagby, Houston 77002 by 1:30 p.m. that
Before you testify please download our guide (PDF), which is full of helpful tips for giving public testimony. If you can’t make it in person, tell your story online. You can submit text or a video link.
Show your support on social media!
By Gislaine Williams, ACLU of Texas Outreach Coordinator
We are fast approaching the start of the 2013 Texas legislative session. Starting January 8 through the end of May, Texas lawmakers will meet in Austin for the 83rd Legislature. They will be proposing, debating, and passing laws that will impact all of us.
As Texans, we have the right and responsibility to be a part of this political process. You can make a difference by raising your voice to demand policies that will make a positive change in our communities. Learn how to become a grassroots activist at Community Watchdog TX.
The first step is to educate yourself. Become familiar with the major issues in Texas. Learn about the legislative process and get to know your representatives. Our toolkits provide you an overview of the critical issues facing our state:
- Criminal Justice TX: Learn about mass incarceration, the rise of for-profit prisons, and the death penalty.
- Educate, Don’t Incarcerate: An overview of school discipline policies pushing students out of school.
- Religious Freedom: A look at how our religious freedoms are threatened in Texas.
- Immigrants’ Rights: Find out how we’re working to reclaim the civil rights of all Texans, regardless of immigration status.
- Find out who your representatives are here.
- Learn how a bill becomes a law here.
Contact your legislator. There are a number of ways you can contact your representative about an issue. You can write a letter, telephone, or set-up a meeting in the local district office. Use our lobbying guides to learn how.
Ready to meet with your legislator? We can help you schedule and prepare for your local meeting. Just email firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.
Lobby with us in Austin! The ACLU of Texas will host our first ever Symposium & Lobby Day in Austin Feb. 10-11. On Feb. 10, you will hear from advocates and policy experts working on criminal justice and immigrants’ rights issues. The following day we will go to the state capitol to meet with representatives to talk to them about the major civil liberties issues in our state. Sign-up today to receive more information.
Stay involved. Join the Community Action Network to get updates on ways you can advocate for change this legislative session.
By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator
Get the facts about the ACLU of Texas and Christmas, so that you can avoid bearing false witness and (should you so desire) be empowered to set the record straight. Merry Christmas from the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas!
Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement, click here.
Recent ACLU cases defending the Constitutional rights of Christians
The ACLU of Texas filed an amicus brief in support of students in the Plano school district who wanted to include pencils with religious messages (like ‘Jesus is the reason for the season’) in holiday gift bags.
The ACLU of Texas and the National ACLU filed a brief in support of a Texas state prisoner seeking damages after prison officials denied him the opportunity to participate in Christian worship services.
The ACLU of Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of a Christian pastor and his faith-based rehabilitation facility in Sinton, Texas. The ACLU urged the court to reverse a decision that had prohibited the pastor from operating his rehabilitation program near his church and also had sharply limited the reach of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In June 2009, the Texas Supreme Court agreed and ruled in favor of the pastor.
The ACLU and the ACLU of Texas filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Texas Supreme Court in support of mothers who had been separated from their children by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). The DFPS seized more than 450 children from their homes in Eldorado, Texas, following vague allegations about child abuse by some members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While fully supporting the state’s commitment to protecting children from abuse, the ACLU argued that Texas law and the U.S. Constitution required that the children be returned unless the state could provide the requisite evidence of abuse. In May 2008, the Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled, consistent with the ACLU position, that the state must return the children to their homes pending further investigation of allegations of abuse.
If you would like to find out more about the ACLU’s work on behalf of religious freedom, please check out this website.
Take Action: We rely on people like you to be our eyes and ears on the ground. Real, lasting change can only happen when we stand up for our civil liberties, one person, one community at a time. Join the Community Action Network and fight on behalf of religious freedom.
Religious Freedom Quiz: Think you know all about the role of religious liberty in American history? Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge of our Founders’ views on religion.
By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
This week we released a report documenting that school districts all over the state routinely ignore the Constitution when it comes to religious freedom in public schools. Examples are detailed in, “At the Mercy of the Majority: Attacks on Religious Freedom in Texas Public Schools in the Decade after Santa Fe v. Doe.” Moreover, Texans who complain publicly are often subjected to ridicule and threats.
Check out our coverage:
According to the report, “The ACLU of Texas receives dozens of complaints every year from students, parents, and teachers across Texas reporting that local public schools violate students’ religious freedom in a myriad of ways: prohibiting students from wearing religious attire, injecting sectarian religious views into classroom instruction, and even endorsing and requiring student prayer.
“Yet most of the complainants are afraid of speaking out, even with the Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court on their side. They fear if they go public with their concerns, their children will face retaliation at school. They fear social stigma in their towns. They fear loss of their jobs. They fear violence,” the report concluded.
Schools named in the report include:
Alief ISD p. 22
Athens ISD p. 46
Brazosport ISD p. 32
Brownsville ISD p. 21
Celina ISD p. 26, 32
Cleburne ISD p. 32, 42
Clint ISD p. 20
Cypress-Fairbanks ISD p. 30, 32
Dallas ISD p. 21, 44
Dayton ISD p. 28, 32
Deer Park ISD p. 28
Ector County ISD p. 32, 35
El Paso ISD p. 25
Grand Prairie ISD p. 25
Fort Bend ISD p. 22
Fredericksburg ISD p. 32, 42
Honda ISD p. 26
Humble ISD p. 26, 28
Hurst-Euless-Bedford ISD p. 45
Irving ISD p. 32, 44
Joshua ISD p. 32
King HS, Corpus Christi ISD p. 29
Liberty-Eylau ISD p. 41
Lubbock ISD p. 35
Lufkin ISD p. 32, 43
Magnolia ISD p. 25, 27, 32
Nacogdoches ISD p. 32, 40
Navasota ISD p. 41-42
North Lamar ISD p. 46
Panhandle ISD p. 28, 32
Rockwall ISD p. 41
Round Rock ISD p. 31
Socorro ISD p. 25, 47
Somerset ISD p. 20
Spring ISD p. 20
Texas City ISD p. 22
Willis ISD p. 32, 35
Wylie ISD p. 32
Ysleta ISD p. 45
Tags: religious freedom
Find out what the law says about praying in school, punishment at school for saying something on Facebook, and handling police encounters.
Take the quiz to test your knowledge. Then, as you go through the answers, find out what the ACLU of Texas is doing to educate youth about their rights.
1. A school district that allows for corporal punishment cannot discipline a student in that manner without a parent’s written consent.
b. False – If a school district agrees to allow corporal punishment, a school within that district is permitted to physically discipline a student unless that student’s parent or guardian expressly opts out in writing before the beginning of each school year.
2. School administrative staff and police officers must receive training about student mental health and suicide prevention.
a.True – Thanks to a new law in Texas, all school districts must provide for training of all teachers, administrators, counselors, nurses, social workers, law enforcement officers, and all other staff on how to recognize signs of mental health issues and intervene early and appropriately.
3. When a student is the victim of bullying, a school:
a. Must notify the parents of the bullying victim
b. Must notify the parents of the bully
c. May handle the matter internally
d. Both a. & b. – House Bill 1942, which will go into effect as law this fall, requires school officials to provide for the timely notification of both students’ parents.
4. Can the school punish a student for something he or she says on Facebook?
c. Maybe – Students have a First Amendment right of free speech, but it has certain limits. Schools may be able to censor or punish students for cyberspeech if it is part of a school project, uses school computers, is accessed from a school computer lab, or if it is materially disruptive, vulgar, threatening, or advocates illegal drug use. However, the Supreme Court has said that political speech is “at the core of what the First Amendment is designed to protect,” and students generally have the right to state their political opinions in a non-disruptive manner.
5. When addressing an incident of bullying that results in school disruption, a school is required to consider whether a victim was acting in self-defense when determining the appropriate punishment for those involved.
A. True – House Bill 1942 also prohibits a student from being punished if he or she was reacting in self-defense to an act of bullying.
6. Do students have the right to pray in school?
a. No, because the ACLU will file a lawsuit to stop them.
b. Yes, in most circumstances. – Students have the right to pray at school, whatever their religion or religious denomination, as long as they do not disrupt the instructional or other activities of the school. A valedictorian or salutatorian may even include a prayer or religious message in their graduation speech. The school cannot compel or sponsor student prayer, however, or set aside time for prayer during the course of any school event or activity. Prayer is an individual right, and it may not be restricted or coerced by the school or any school official.
7. Can school officials search a student’s locker without the student or parent’s consent?
a. Yes, any time they want and for any reason.
b. No, they are never permitted to search a student’s locker without that student’s consent.
c. Yes, but the search must be reasonable and related to a suspected violation of the school code or the penal law. – Under Texas law, students do not have a legitimate expectation of privacy in their lockers. The school technically owns each locker and does not need a student’s consent before conducting a search. At the same time, the search must be reasonable and related to the suspected disciplinary violation that led to the search. For example, in Shoemaker v. State, the Beaumont Court of Appeals found that when a student was suspected of stealing credit cards, a nonconsensual, warrantless search of her locker for evidence of the theft was reasonable. In contrast, in Coronado v. State, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals held that when a student was suspected of skipping school, a search of his locker for contraband was unreasonable under the circumstances.
8. Can minors obtain contraception without the consent of a parent or guardian?
a. Yes. A student has the right to obtain any over-the-counter or prescription contraception available to adults.
b. Yes, but with some limitations. – As a general rule, minors over the age of 16 do not need consent to buy any over-the-counter form of birth control. Prescription contraception, however, normally requires the consent of a parent or guardian.
c. No. Students do not have any right to contraception without parental consent.
9. If a school administrator wants to question a student about a crime or a violation of school rules, she must first recite the student’s Miranda rights (i.e., that he has the right to remain silent, that anything he says can and will be used against him in a court of law, etc.).
b. False – Unless the police are involved in a student’s questioning or detention, a student is not “in custody” so as to trigger his or her Miranda rights. As long as the administrator is acting within the scope of his official duties in questioning the student, he is not legally obligated to “Mirandize” the student.
10. Do minors have fewer rights than adults when they are stopped by the police?
b. No - While school administrators have greater leeway than law enforcement to question and search students on campus, police are held to the same legal standards when stopping minors and adults. This is true whether the stop occurs on- or off-campus.
By Jeffrey Adams
Summer Legal Intern
On the anniversary of our nation’s independence, Americans celebrate freedom, but do you know where it comes from? For example, think about the the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment. Do you know how the phrase “separation of church and State” originated? You won’t find it in the Constitution.
In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson used the now-famous “wall of separation” metaphor to describe the ideal relationship between church and State:
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State
Jefferson is revered as one of the earliest American patriots. He drafted the Declaration of Independence that marked our break from English rule. Three years later, he authored The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom that was a precursor to the First Amendment. Later, while serving as our third U.S. President, Jefferson wrote his famous response to the Danbury Baptists.
But the analogy is older than that. It was coined, as far as anyone can tell, by Roger Williams, the founder of the state of Rhode Island and the first Baptist church in America. Williams, a Puritan who fled from religious persecution, himself, wrote in 1644 of “a hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Although Jefferson was not present for the Philadelphia Convention where the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787, he led advocates for the religious freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment. He borrowed Williams’ analogy to explain why the Founders thought it was so important. After all, New Hampshire, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina all proposed something similar to the language of the First Amendment before they would agree to ratify the new Constitution.
In 1878, the Supreme Court invoked Jefferson’s Danbury letter in Reynolds v. U.S., a case that challenged the Constitutionality of a federal law criminalizing bigamy. To determine whether the anti-bigamy law infringed on an individual’s rights, the Court had to interpret the meaning of the First Amendment and noted that “religion” was not defined anywhere by the drafters: “We must go elsewhere, therefore, to ascertain its meaning, and nowhere more appropriately, we think, than to the history of the times in the midst of which the provision was adopted.” The Court reviewed the political and legal environment at the time the Bill of Rights was drafted, noting that states had routinely collected taxes in support of particular religious sects and punished citizens for failing to attend public worship ceremonies. Against this backdrop of government interference in religion, the Court viewed Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists as “an authoritative declaration of the scope” of the First Amendment. And, thus, the “separation of church and State” became enshrined in judicial precedent.
Interestingly, the controversy over this separation is as old as the republic, itself. Jefferson, a believer in decentralized government and Republican party leader, was reviled by the Federalists of the time for his persistent refusal to proclaim a day of thanksgiving or prayer. Jefferson’s refusal to do so was based on his belief that government should not interfere in the religious life of its citizens, and to endorse a day of thanksgiving was, he thought, an exploitation of religion. He believed that in breaking away from the rule of England, we also had to break from their tradition of State-controlled religion. His opponents responded by labeling him a godless Republican. If we look at the disagreement surrounding religious conversations today, the scrutiny given to the faith beliefs of presidential candidates and other public figures, we see that not much has changed.
This July 4th, remember the quintessential American freedom to disagree, and celebrate your right to believe freely without repression or coercion from anyone, especially the government.
By Gislaine Williams
Statewide Advocacy Coordinator
Did you know that all 15 seats on the State Board of Education (SBOE) are up for election this year?
The SBOE is responsible for establishing curriculum standards and reviewing and approving textbooks for Texas public schools. In the past, the SBOE has used this power to push religious and political agendas, ignoring its basic constitutional responsibility to uphold separation between church and state.
You have the power to change that by electing a board that protects the Constitution and puts children before ideology.
Take the first step by learning more about the candidates running in your district. What would be their answers to these questions?
• What role should religion play in setting curriculum standards?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• Now that we have state-authorized Bible courses, what other religious traditions should be taught?
• How do you balance your personal faith convictions with your role as a public servant?
• What standards do you support for the writing & adoption of TEKS?
• What, if anything, should be done to protect minority faiths in the classrooms?
By Dotty Griffith
Public Education Director
Graduation season is upon us. For many students and their families, this is a happy time. But it may also be a time when school administrators teach their students a fundamentally un-American lesson – that it’s okay for the state to favor one religion over others.
Unfortunately, these administrators forget that, while the Founders left many issues up to majority rule, they viewed some rights as so fundamental that they should never be put to a vote. They created the Bill of Rights to protect those fundamental rights, including religious freedom. The First Amendment prohibits the state from endorsing or advancing religion and from interfering with any individual’s free exercise of religion.
At the ACLU of Texas, two of the most common complaints we receive during graduation season are that the graduation ceremony will feature prayer or that it is being held in a religious venue. While the specific facts of each case are vital to determining whether the school has violated the First Amendment, here is some general information about what is and is not permissible (this is not legal advice).
Prayer at graduation:
- Your school cannot sponsor or endorse prayer at graduation. Even a non-sectarian prayer is unconstitutional, because government entities like public schools cannot decide what sort of prayer people should hear. Additionally, courts have held that school-sponsored prayer is coercive, as many students feel pressured to participate even if they do not want to. The First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling a religious exercise.
- Individual students, however, may choose to pray, or talk about their religious faith, in a graduation or similar speech. This is because the First Amendment guarantees their right to freely exercise religion. Such prayer is constitutional only if the school is absolutely clear that it does not sponsor or endorse the religious speech. Therefore, at a minimum, school administrators cannot encourage students to pray; they cannot dictate, suggest, or edit what a student is going to say; and they must include a disclaimer on the event program indicating that they do not sponsor student religious speech.
- And of course, any student may pray privately, to him or herself, at anytime, at graduation or anywhere else, as long as she or he is not disrupting other students.
Graduation in Church:
- Schools are not prohibited from using a religious venue for a school event like graduation. However, the decision to use a religious venue must not advance or endorse religion. At a minimum, this means that schools should always try to hold graduation in a non-religious venue. A church should not be used unless it is the only viable location.
- If a religious setting must be used, it should be as welcoming to all beliefs and non-belief as possible. For example, if the church being used has many conspicuous, sectarian icons and symbols—such as crosses, crucifixes, menorahs, and the like—the decision to use that setting may advance the particular religion.
Think your rights have been violated? Tell us your story. Together, we can help ensure that all Texas students graduate in a Constitution-friendly way!
By Victor Cornell
Religious Freedom Campaign Coordinator
Recently, we asked people to take our survey about schools that have students vote on whether to pray at graduation. We received a lot of responses telling us how uncomfortable prayer at graduation made some people, and how they felt excluded or stigmatized at their own graduations. But we also got responses from people who were confused about what is ok and what is not when it comes to prayer in school. So let’s consult the First Amendment and see if we can’t clear things up!
Question: Why can’t students pray? Isn’t that covered by freedom of religion or freedom of speech?
Answer: They can pray, and prayer is protected! Contrary to what you may have heard on the news from certain former presidential primary candidates, students of all religions have the right to practice their religion at school. That right is protected by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and by the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.1 Students absolutely have the right to pray voluntarily in school, alone or with friends at any time that doesn’t disrupt classes.2 But here’s the part where people get tripped up. One of the most important ways that the law protects students’ religious freedom is by preventing the government – including government-run public schools – from telling kids when or what to pray. The same First Amendment that ensures students have the freedom to practice and express their faith is what protects students from having any religion or prayer forced on them by schools.
Question: What’s wrong with schools promoting religion?
Answer: Public schools are government entities; therefore they must respect all faiths and favor none. Along the same lines, the government cannot show a preference for religion in general over the beliefs of nonreligious people.3 Matters of individual conscience should be left to the individual, not forced upon students by school administrators or teachers. That’s the very definition of freedom!
Question: If the whole school votes and a majority say they want a prayer at an event, wouldn’t that be okay?
Answer: No. One of the most important jobs of the Constitution is to protect the freedom of the minority to practice a faith that the majority may disagree with. Balloting or voting for prayer still favors the majority religion over others and is unfair to the students whose beliefs don’t conform to the majority. In Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, the Supreme Court held that by setting up an election and providing the stage for prayer, the school was still coercing students to pray.4 It doesn’t matter whether the person leading the prayer is invited clergy or a student or if the prayer is non-denominational; it’s all coercive and unconstitutional if school officials organize, sponsor or endorse it.
A few respondents to the survey worried that the ACLU of Texas was discriminating against Christians. But think of it this way. What would happen if a Texas school opened its graduation ceremony with a Wiccan Esbat ritual or a chanting of Hindu kirtans? Do you think the Christians in the audience would be offended? Do you think they might feel that they were being forced to participate in religious rituals that conflict with their cherished, deeply held beliefs? Of course they would! And rightly so!
The question is, “How would you feel if that happened at your graduation?” Unfortunately, it happens to students across Texas every year, whether they are Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, or atheist. We are reminded of Luke 6:31 (NIV) “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
The good news is, whenever coerced prayer happens in Texas, we are there, defending the Constitution and students’ freedoms of and from religion!
1Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.003.
2Tex. Educ. Code § 25.901. See also Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 512-13 (1969).
3See Wallace v. Jaffree, 472 U.S. 38, 53 (1985).
4Santa Fe, 530 U.S. at 317.