How a quiet young student found the courage to speak up for religious liberty
Whatever else you want to say about what Emily Brooker’s been through in the last two years, she’s a terrific testimony to the truth of the old adage, “Be careful what you pray for.”
A senior at Missouri State University, studying social work, she’d already helped found a Christian sorority, and was investing a lot of her free time in a place called ‘The Potter’s House,” a local Christian outreach barely disguised as a coffee shop. She was excited about her growing faith, but increasingly eager to put that faith into action. “I kept asking God, ‘Why aren’t You using me?’” she remembers. “Is there something wrong with me? Am I not strong enough?”
And yet, by her own admission, Emily was not exactly the type to find a fray and fling herself into it.
“I guess I was the ‘sit-back’ type,” she says. “You hear about things, and think, ‘Oh, that’s interesting – I will pray about it.’ But I never really did anything about it.”
Her passive style, though, was beginning to trouble her. Already, she’d faced one clear challenge to her conscience … and found herself more inclined to accommodation than activism.
During her freshman year, one of Emily’s professors had directed her students to go out into the community, find a public place, and act out some homosexual behavior. Hold hands with a classmate of the same gender, or kiss them, or whatever, and see how other people react to what you’re doing. Write up your experiences, and turn them in for your grade.
The assignment stunned Emily.
“These professors are so much more educated than what you have experienced before,” she says. “It’s intimidating, and I had been taught never to question the authority. What your teacher says, that is what goes, and you do what they say.
“So, it was like, ‘Okay, well ... I am not supposed to question authority, but I don’t really agree with this, so what do I do about it?’ Just being naïve and young, I didn’t really know how to question that.”
So – she didn’t. Emily had a pretty good idea, from previous lectures, what the professor was looking for, and that’s what she gave her, in a paper based on a purely fictional experience. The ruse won her an “A” … but she sensed, somehow, that she’d missed an opportunity.
Three years later, the opportunity knocked again. A few weeks before graduation, another of Emily’s professor commissioned his students to write letters to the Missouri legislature advocating foster care and adoption rights for same-sex couples.
Once again, Emily was caught off guard.
“It wasn’t just ‘Look at this population and write about it’ … it was, ‘You are going to put your name on something.’ It was like endorsing it, and I said, ‘No, I can’t do this. I do not want my name on any document that says I am going to support the homosexual agenda.’”
"'Is it because you’re a Christian?' he asked."
During a lull in the class, Emily respectfully approached the professor and told him she couldn’t do what he asked, offering to do another assignment, or even everything involved in this one – short of actually signing and sending the letter.
“It’s good to learn about different walks of life,” she said, “but for me to go out into the community and endorse something … I cannot do that, if I don’t believe in it.”
“Is it because you’re a Christian?” he asked.
“I am a Christian,” Emily said, “and, yes, my Christian beliefs do guide where my life goes. But this is a right-and-wrong thing. I just cannot support this, and you cannot tell me how to stand on a political issue.”
When a little further back-and-forth established that Emily wasn’t going to change her mind, the professor abruptly ended class and stormed out in a fury. Knowing some of her classmates were Christians, Emily asked them if they shared her concern.
“The reaction I got was, ‘I don’t want it to affect my grade,’” she says. “Or, ‘I just don’t want to have to do any extra work.’”
The head of the department and Emily’s faculty advisor both assured her that the professor’s word was law. She was still trying to figure out the best way to deal with the situation, and her upcoming final exams, when she received a telephone call informing her that the professor had filed a Level 3 grievance – the most serious complaint possible – against her. She would be required to meet with a faculty ethics committee immediately after finals.
Interestingly, the “ethics committee” was not overly concerned with how it conducted its own affairs. The group didn’t put its request in writing, wouldn’t tell Emily what the complaint was, and gave her considerably less than 30-days’ notice – all university requirements. They refused to let Emily bring an attorney, or even her parents, to the meeting, and they refused to let anyone record
Instead, the Social Work Sanhedrin devoted two-and-a-half hours to browbeating Emily about her Christian faith.
“Do you think homosexuals are sinners?”
“Are you a sinner?”
“What’s the difference between you and them?”
“Are we sinners?”
As the questions intensified, tears rolled down Emily’s face … but she held her ground.
“You haven’t changed your mind?” one of the professors said, at last.
“No,” Emily said. “And I’m not going to.”
The committee came up with a few academic hoops for Emily to jump through before graduation, then dismissed her, threatening to withhold her diploma. But they’d made a mistake, pushing Emily that far. She came out of their Star Chamber red-eyed but looking for a lawyer.
Some friends from church recommended an allied attorney of the Alliance Defense Fund. On hearing what she’d been through, he immediately summoned David French, director of the ADF Center for Academic Freedom. ADF filed suit against Missouri State on Emily’s behalf – and almost overnight, everything changed.
"Interestingly, the 'ethics committee' was not overly concerned with how it conducted its own affairs."
“The president of the university did the right thing,” French says. “He received the lawsuit, launched an immediate internal investigation, found that Emily’s claims were accurate, said so publicly, suspended the professor involved, (and) placed the entire department under investigation.” He also took one more extraordinary step – offering to pay for Emily’s graduate school education and expenses at any other public school in the state.
The repercussions of Emily’s case are still being felt, in her state and across the nation. The Missouri House has passed the “Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act,” calling for genuine institutional self-examination at colleges throughout the state. Other states are considering similar legislation.
“ADF just gave me so much hope,” she says, “that it wasn’t going to be me walking this alone. That I was going to have a whole body of people behind me saying, ‘This is wrong, and we care.’ ” But perhaps the best return on Emily’s ordeal came a couple of weeks after the lawsuit was filed, when she received a phone call from one of the Christian students who’d refused to stand with her, all those weeks before.
“I didn’t realize how important it was,” the girl said. “Thank you for doing what I couldn’t do.”
Turns out, God did use Emily. Turns out, she was strong enough, after all.