Thursday, January 31, 2008

Liberty Counsel Files Brief at Iowa Supreme Court to Protect Traditional Marriage

Liberty Counsel filed an amicus brief at the Iowa Supreme Court in a case that will ultimately either protect or destroy the definition of marriage in Iowa, which has always been the union between one man and one woman. Liberty Counsel’s brief, written by Senior Litigation Attorney Mary McAlister, argues that the fundamental constitutional right to marry includes rights and obligations that cannot be eliminated because they come from the inherent nature of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, rather than from a state-sanctioned union of any two people who love each other.

In Varnum v. Brien, at various times in 2004 and 2005 six couples applied for marriage certificates to the Polk County Recorder and Polk County Registrar, Timothy Brien, who denied their applications for marriage on the basis of Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act. Trial court Judge Robert Hanson ruled the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. Brien appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Liberty Counsel submitted an Amicus Brief in support of Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act. In previous cases the Iowa Supreme Court has repeatedly expressed that marriage – the union of one man and one woman – is a “most vital social institution.” State marriage laws do not create a bundle of rights called “marriage,” but instead regulate a social institution upon which society has been built and the future of society rests. Society is not obligated to recognize and bestow benefits upon any group of individuals who profess to love each other. The opposing side is actually trying to deconstruct the institution of marriage at the same time that they are asking to become a part of it. Furthermore, the definition of marriage neither discriminates on the basis of sex or sexual orientation nor deprives anyone of the fundamental right to marry.

Virtually every court that has considered challenges to traditional marriage has correctly concluded that the matter of marriage should be decided by the people, not by the courts. Courts are not proselytizing engines of radical social change. Marriage between one man and one woman is a historically shared value that transcends time and cultures. Untying the knot that holds together traditional marriage will unravel the family, destabilize the culture, and hurt children.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

California School Board Accepts Community Service Hours Earned at Church

The Long Beach District School Board has approved a settlement agreement with Christopher Rand, a high school student who was denied credit for community service hours he completed at his church. Chris has now received full credit for the hours. The district administration also rewrote its community service learning policy to allow students to complete mandatory community service hours at either secular or religious organizations, including churches, on the same terms.

In October 2007, Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit against the district because Chris’s school refused to grant credit for more than 70 hours of community service, solely because it was performed at Long Beach Alliance Church. He interacted with the children in the church’s programs, answered questions, assisted with crafts and art projects, supervised activity time to help ensure safety, and performed other duties.

After Chris submitted the required documentation regarding his volunteer service, he was denied credit because the district’s prior community service learning policy stated, “Service to your religious community does not count.” If Christopher had given the same service in a secular school or in a nonreligious childcare program, his service would have been credited. Shortly after Liberty Counsel filed suit, the district agreed to award Chris credit for the full 72.5 hours that had previously been rejected.

In addition to giving Chris credit for his community service, the district accepted input from Liberty Counsel in revising its policy to comply with the First Amendment. Under the new policy, religious organizations will receive the same treatment as other nonprofit organizations in terms of the types of community service work that is permitted. Students are expressly allowed to supervise and assist with leading organized children’s activities, such as those performed by Chris. The district also agreed to pay attorney’s fees and costs to Liberty Counsel.

When community service is a graduation requirement, schools cannot limit service to secular venues. Discrimination against performing community service for religious organizations violates the First Amendment and offends the rich religious heritage that made this country great.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Lawsuit Filed Against School Board For Discrimination Against Christian Club

Liberty Counsel has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Child Evangelism Fellowship of Virginia (CEF) against Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools (“WJCC”), aimed at halting discriminatory treatment against the Christian organization.

The WJCC School Board insists on charging the Good News Club a facility usage fee, while granting Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and other “patriotic” and community service organizations a waiver for usage fees. CEF of Virginia’s initial request for a fee waiver was denied, and Liberty Counsel sent a letter informing the board that the First Amendment requires that CEF be accorded equal treatment with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and similar service organizations. WJCC officials still denied CEF a fee waiver. WJCC policy gives the superintendent discretion to waive usage fees “in consideration of services rendered by public institutions or nonprofit organizations in direct support of public school students or staff.” Although CEF falls into that category, WJCC’s superintendent refused to grant CEF a fee waiver.

CEF is a nonprofit organization, and its after-school Good News Clubs provide lessons on responsible citizenship, including character development, respect for authority and community service from a Biblical viewpoint. These lessons complement the goals set forth in the school board’s policy under the heading “Educational Philosophy.” That policy states, “[T]he most important challenge facing the school is to provide each student with experiences for meeting his/her needs as a participating, responsible citizen in a democratic society.” The policy further provides that “to accomplish these goals, all available resources in the community, the home and the school must be used.”

WJCC recognizes the Boy Scouts and other youth-focused groups as beneficial community resources but continues to segregate the Good News Club by imposing the facility usage fee in violation of the U.S. Constitution. WJCC has attempted to justify its discriminatory treatment by saying that it is required to give free access to patriotic organizations, but that it’s not required under the No Child Left Behind Act to give free access to Good News Clubs. This argument is absurd. If anything, the Act strengthens the argument that Good News Clubs should receive free access to the facilities like the scouts and other patriotic organizations.

Equal access is the law, and equal access means equal treatment in every respect. Good News Clubs are one of the most positive influences that public schools can offer to parents and their children. It is absurd that anyone would want to reject an organization that promotes morality, responsibility, and character development. These are qualities that young children need to learn about and develop.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Two-Year Battle Finally Ends: FL District Changes Discriminatory Policy

After two years, Liberty Counsel has settled a dispute with the Orange County School Board and Child Evangelism Fellowship of Central Florida (CEF) regarding discriminatory treatment against the Christian organization. The school district had been charging CEF facility usage fees, while allowing free access to other groups such as the Boy Scouts. After receiving a demand letter from Liberty Counsel, the school district has stopped charging CEF for access. The school board also adopted a new policy giving CEF equal access and refunded nearly $2,500 in prior fees collected under the unconstitutional policy. Liberty Counsel represents CEF of Central Florida, which offers its Good News Clubs after school.

In December of 2005, Liberty Counsel wrote Orange County Superintendent Ron Blocker, requesting that Good News Clubs be permitted to use facilities free of charge in light of the free use by the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H. Liberty Counsel received no response. In September of 2006, Liberty Counsel wrote Blocker again, asserting the unconstitutionality of the differential fee schedule and demanding equal access as well as a reimbursement of all fees. The school district’s attorney requested cases supporting CEF’s position. While the matter was being resolved, the district suspended charging CEF further fees. Liberty Counsel then began a long process of working with the district to revise the school board’s facility usage policy.

The policy had classified five types of user groups with different facility usage fees. In the first group for no charge were descriptions of various private organizations serving students, ending with “including Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and 4-H.” Another more expensive fee category included churches and religious organizations. Good News Clubs was classified as a religious organization. Orange County Schools’ attorney ultimately recommended a revised policy to delineate categories that expressly describe Scouts and Good News Clubs in the same category to eliminate the prior policy’s religious discrimination problems.

As part of the revision process, the district staff revisited other aspects of the facility use policy, and comprehensive revisions finally came before the board in the summer of 2007. In the fall, CEF offered to give up its court claims if all its fees were fully refunded within two months. The day before the offer expired, it was accepted and a refund check from the district was received. The attorneys then negotiated a settlement and release agreement which was signed on January 11.

After-school Good News Clubs teach children respect, good citizenship and moral values from a biblical viewpoint. Liberty Counsel has obtained victories for CEF in numerous states from coast to coast and frequently litigates when school districts do not correct unfair treatment of Good News Clubs.

The law is crystal clear. Christian viewpoints are constitutionally protected. Public schools must provide equal access for Christian viewpoints and Christian clubs.

Monday, January 21, 2008

"Facing The Giants" Faces Discrimination At School

On Tuesday, following a complaint from an unidentified person, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) sent a demand letter to Tuscaloosa City Schools and Paul W. Bryant High School, asking that all teachers be told not to show the film, Facing the Giants. Liberty Counsel has offered its assistance to the school district and any of its officials or employees to defend them against AU’s claims.

Two classes at Paul W. Bryant High School watched Facing the Giants during class before Christmas break. The movie is an inspirational film about a high school football team which overcomes many obstacles to become a winning team. The film was produced by Sherwood Pictures, associated with Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia. SONY Pictures was the major funder and distributor of the inspirational film. The movie is family-friendly and has been distributed around the world.

AU claims that showing the movie in a public school classroom somehow establishes a religion. In response to the complaint, the school suspended further viewing of the movie to investigate the matter. Liberty Counsel has explained to the school district that claims made by AU are not legally sound. Liberty Counsel has offered to represent the school at no cost.

There is no constitutional violation when public school teachers include, within the mix of curriculum or assemblies, various symbols, music, art, drama or literature that has overtly religious themes. If the school is providing exposure to a variety of viewpoints on a given subject matter or an array of cultural narratives, there is no violation of the First Amendment.

Here we go again with another bogus threatening letter from an antireligious organization which has a truncated view of the world. In the worldview of Americans United, there is no room for religion. The problem with that view is that it is contrary to our heritage, history and the First Amendment. The First Amendment does not require that public schools become religion-free zones.

Facing the Giants is an inspirational, family-friendly movie that is available everywhere in DVD format. Mat and Anita Staver had the privilege of meeting the writers and producers, and they recommend the movie for family viewing.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No Fear: Pastors and Churches May Actively Support the Federal Marriage Amendment

Pastors and churches should not be intimidated by baseless threats seeking to silence them. They may actively support the passage of the Federal Marriage Amendment and state initiatives designed to preserve traditional marriage. Liberty Counsel provides free representation to pastors and churches regarding political activity.

History does not support the baseless threats hurled against conservative churches. Since 1934, when the lobbying restriction was added to the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”), not one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status. Since 1954, when the political endorsement/opposition prohibition was added, only one church has ever lost its IRS letter ruling, but even that church did not lose its tax-exempt status. That case involved the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which placed full-page ads in USA Today and the Washington Times opposing then-Governor Bill Clinton for President. The ads were sponsored by the Church and donations were solicited. The IRS revoked the Church’s letter ruling, but not its tax-exempt status. The Church sued, and the court ruled that churches are tax exempt without an IRS letter ruling. The Court noted that “because of the unique treatment churches receive under the Internal Revenue Code, the impact of the revocation is likely to be more symbolic than substantial.” Not even this Church lost its tax-exempt status, and not one donor was affected by this incident.

While churches may not endorse or oppose candidates for elective office, pastors can preach on biblical and moral issues, such as traditional marriage and abortion, can urge the congregation to register and vote, can overview the positions of the candidates, and may personally endorse candidates. Churches may distribute nonpartisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates.

Churches may promote and endorse pending legislation or marriage amendments or initiatives. The only limitation is that the churches do not devote more than a substantial part of their overall activity toward lobbying. No church has every lost its tax exemption for engaging in too much lobbying.

Pastors should throw away the muzzles that some wish to impose on them and replace them with megaphones. It was sermons of pastors that fueled the American Revolution. America needs her pastors to once again speak up and address the religious and moral issues of the day. It is far more likely to be struck by lightening twice than for churches to lose their tax-exempt status over political issues.

Pastors, Churches and Politics and the Primaries

As the presidential race continues, the focus now turns to Michigan. Evangelicals are expected to play an influential role in this and other upcoming primaries. In Iowa, some pastors received anonymous letters saying they should not preach on religious or political issues because they might land in the “slammer.” Such threats are baseless, but they do illustrate the increasing role that pastors play in politics and the attempts by some to silence them.

History does not support the baseless threats hurled against pastors and churches. Since 1934, when the lobbying restriction was added to the Internal Revenue Code (“IRC”), not one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status. Since 1954, when the political endorsement/opposition prohibition was added, only one church has ever lost its IRS letter ruling, but even that church did not lose its tax-exempt status. That case involved the Church at Pierce Creek in New York, which placed full-page ads in USA Today and the Washington Times opposing then-Governor Bill Clinton for President. The ads were sponsored by the Church and donations were solicited. The IRS revoked the Church’s letter ruling, but not its tax-exempt status. The Church sued, and the court ruled that churches are tax exempt without an IRS letter ruling. The Court noted that “because of the unique treatment churches receive under the Internal Revenue Code, the impact of the revocation is likely to be more symbolic than substantial.” Not even this Church lost its tax-exempt status, and not one donor was affected by this incident.

While churches may not endorse or oppose candidates for elective office, pastors can preach on biblical and moral issues, such as traditional marriage and abortion, can urge the congregation to register and vote, can overview the positions of the candidates, and may personally endorse candidates. Churches may distribute nonpartisan voter guides, register voters, provide transportation to the polls, hold candidate forums, and introduce visiting candidates.

Churches may promote and endorse pending legislation or marriage amendments or initiatives. The only limitation is that the churches not devote more than a substantial part of their overall activity to lobbying. No church has every lost its tax exemption for engaging in too much lobbying.

Pastors should throw away the muzzles that some wish to impose on them and replace them with megaphones. It was sermons of pastors that fueled the American Revolution. America needs her pastors to once again speak up and address the religious and moral issues of the day. It is far more likely to be struck by lightening twice than for churches to lose their tax-exempt status over political issues.