Sometimes, You Have To Appeal To Caesar
by Beth Sheeran
Beth Sheeran was a nursing student at Spokane Falls Community College in Washington in 2008 when she spearheaded an effort by a Christian club on campus to sponsor a pro-life event. She designed flyers, put together a display, and made the other necessary preparations. Then she learned the college was shutting down the event. Her determination to know why eventually led her to seriously question not only school administrators … but some of her own convictions.
As a Christian, I never thought the day would come when the difference between right and wrong would be anything but crystal clear. Two years ago, that belief was tested severely.
Until recently, I didn’t believe that Christians should seek justice through the courts. Now, I’ve come to realize that, in some instances, it’s just not possible to find justice anywhere else.
The display and the flyers I had prepared for the pro-life event combined some startling facts and statistics: nine out of 10 Down’s Syndrome babies aborted; 60 million female babies in Asian countries; one out of two African-American babies. To me, these numbers suggest that our society is systematically disposing of lives we regard as an inconvenience or of lesser value.
"I knew that the abuse of authority would...shut doors to the Gospel."
The materials also included words from the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It was the denial of another of those unalienable rights – liberty – that tested and changed my beliefs.
The student activities director decided to shut down our event. I appealed her decision, and received interesting explanations for why free speech wasn’t viable in this situation. One was that “Washington is a pro-choice state, and we can’t use school grounds for a pro-life display.” Another was “the club is funded by state money, so you have to include pro-choice information.”
Still, for all the stonewalling, it looked for awhile like our event might be permitted, after all. The dean told us that, if enough of our club members voted to hold the event, the school would let it take place. Our members did just that … but then, at the next club meeting, our advisor walked in with two of the college’s administrators.
The materials for our event, our advisor said, had been deemed “racist,” “offensive,” and “in violation of state law and school rules.” She gave each of us a handout explaining that the college would take action against “any act of conduct, speech or expression to which a bias motive is evident … regardless of whether the act is criminal.”
We were also given a paper on “The Pyramid of Hate,” defining acts of “prejudice” and “hate,” including “non-inclusive language,” “insensitive remarks,” jokes, and stereotyping – all of which, it was implied, were just a few steps away from murder and genocide.
"I couldn't face the rest of my college career knowing that I could have helped stop the censorship and bullying, but didn't."
Then came the warning: if our club passed out the pro-life flyers, the college could expel us. And, since many of us were in the process of applying to four-year universities, it wasn’t a good time for any of us to risk getting kicked out of school. We took the threat very seriously.
While researching our situation, I found information about the Alliance Defense Fund and their work on university campuses. I contacted them, and they helped me file suit against the college.
The decision to go to court was hard for me. Our club members prayed and fasted, and I sought out advice from church leaders and close friends. Eventually, some club members decided that if they fought for the event, our club might be kicked off campus. Others feared the bad publicity might compromise our club’s witness on campus. I understood and sympathized with those views.
But I knew that the abuse of authority would also shut doors to the Gospel, and that fear of disciplinary action would prevent many Christians from sharing their beliefs about issues like homosexual behavior and abortion. The truth of Scripture has always been offensive to the world, and – at the time – any student who felt offended by another’s words or deeds could report the incident to the college’s “Bias Incident Response” Team.
In my heart, I knew it was inevitable that eventually someone would be disciplined or expelled for speaking the truth of Jesus Christ, and that punishment would intimidate others to silence.
Personally, I couldn’t face the rest of my college career knowing that I could have helped stop the censorship and bullying, but didn’t. There is a legal term, “aiding and abetting,” where if you know someone is breaking the law and don’t try to stop them, you become an accomplice through passive assistance. That’s how I’d have felt, if I hadn’t taken the college to court.
In September, 2009, the college district settled the case, agreed to change its restrictive speech policies (including their policies on “hate speech”), and restored the First Amendment-protected freedoms of all students – including our Christian club.
Looking back, I know I did what Christ wanted me to do. I didn’t pursue the lawsuit out of frustration or anger, although I experienced some of those emotions along the way. Instead, I think of how the Apostle Paul appealed to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship. To me, that’s what I did, invoking the authority of a court to urge the college to respect our civil rights.
And thanks to some courtroom justice, and the good help of ADF, Christian community college students at Spokane Falls again have the “unalienable” liberty to stand up for what they believe.