Sometimes, the events in just one state offer a pretty clear microcosm of what’s happening all over the country. Right now, Iowa is Exhibit A for what is fast becoming a nationwide contempt in our courts for the First Amendment of our constitution.
Assault on Freedom of Speech
At Iowa State University, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Robert Dunn, a student at Iowa State University, who is challenging the school’s draconian speech code. University officials are openly warning students that “engaging in First Amendment-protected speech activities” may be punished as “harassment,” and telling them that if they fail to embrace that singular interpretation of the constitution, they may be prohibited from graduating.
Dunn is a Christian and the president and founder of the politically conservative student group ISU Young Americans for Freedom, the campus chapter of the national Young America’s Foundation. Last month, he received an e-mail from the university requiring a new online training program on “the university’s non-discrimination policies and procedures.” The 118-slide course doesn’t acknowledge any free speech rights for students, and requires each student to certify that he has “read, understood, and will comply with” the university’s speech policies.
The policies, as outlined, “may cover those activities which, although not severe, persistent, or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment, are unacceptable …” What’s more, officials say, even “First Amendment-protected speech activities” may constitute harassment “depending on the circumstances,” including whether other students believe the speech is not “legitimate,” not “necessary,” or lacks a “constructive purpose.”
The policies define “harassment” as, among other vague things, any student expression that may “annoy or alarm another.” Iowa State officials have warned that opposing same-sex marriage, for instance, could be deemed a violation of the harassment policies.
“No university policy can trump the First Amendment,” points out ADF Senior Counsel Casey Mattox, who says Iowa State is setting up itself and other students – rather than the constitution – as the arbiters of what speech is and is not protected. “These are anti-speech policies masquerading as ‘harassment’ policies,” he says, calling the policies unworthy of an institution of higher education, “especially when Iowa State – a taxpayer-funded entity – demands that students agree to them under threat of withholding the ability to graduate.”
These threats to freedom on campus affect the rest of us as surely as they do the students themselves. Students who’ve been taught that their First Amendment rights are somehow gifts from the government, to be granted or taken away at that government’s whim, may take those impressions with them when they graduate and assume their own careers in our schools, courts, and legislatures. That’s how misconceptions become popular misconceptions.
Assault On Religious Freedom
Some Iowa state officials are no fonder of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, as members of the state’s Civil Rights Commission are moving to censor church statements on biblical sexuality and forcing congregations to open their restroom and showers to members of both sexes and all gender identifications.
Those officials asked a federal district court to dismiss a lawsuit filed by ADF attorneys on behalf of several Iowa pastors and churches; last week, the court declined to do so. The court’s ruling states that the church’s “fear of prosecution …is objectively reasonable,” since churches have never been public accommodations subject to government regulation, and state officials have no business trying to decide which church activities are religious and which ones aren’t.
“The government acts outside of its authority when it attempts to control churches. Neither the commission nor any state law has the constitutional authority to dictate how any church uses its facility, or what public statements a church can make concerning sexuality,” says ADF Senior Counsel Steve O’Ban, who argued before the court on behalf of the church. “As the court found, government bureaucrats don’t get to decide which church activities have a religious purpose; that’s for the church to decide.”
The court’s ruling is crucial, as the lawsuit goes forward, because other states (especially Massachusetts) are watching this case as they move to enforce their own encroachments on church autonomy and religious freedom.
As Americans and as people of faith, so blessed for so long with the protections afforded to us by a remarkable constitution, we are all tempted to put too much faith in inertia – why would a country that has for 240 years moved in one clear direction suddenly swerve off into another?
But today, other hands are grappling for the wheel – and if we don’t keep a firm grip (through our prayers, through our votes, through our willingness to fight in the courtroom for our constitutionally protected rights), the nation we love and the heritage we cherish will skid out of control in new, profoundly dangerous directions.
What’s happening in Iowa isn’t a fluke or an exception – just among the most high-profile examples of the moment of this growing assault on our most cherished freedoms. Please be in prayer for our ADF attorneys and allies, and for the courageous clients in Iowa and elsewhere who are standing in defense of the truths we hold dear.