October 27, 2016
Dr. Virginia Young, Superintendent
Newton Municipal School District
205 School Street
Newton, MS 39345
RE: Constitutional Right to Freedom of Religion
Dear Dr. Young:
My name is Mike Hurst and I am the Director of the Mississippi Justice Institute (“MJI”). We are a division of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, an independent, non-profit, public policy organization based in Jackson that works to promote and protect the concepts of free markets, limited government, and strong traditional families. MJI’s mission is to represent
Mississippians whose state or federal Constitutional rights have been threatened or violated, and to defend the principles and ideals of MCPP within and throughout the courts.
I read with astonishment the October 13, 2016, letter addressed to you from an out-of-state group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation (“FFRF”), threatening legal consequences for the actions of a high school football coach baptizing one of his players.
The facts as they now stand: Newton High School football coach Ryan Smith engaged in private religious expression outside school hours, after his official duties as a coach had ended, on private property, not during a school-sponsored event, and with other individuals wishing to express their own privately-held religious beliefs. He did not request, encourage, or require anyone, including his players, to attend or participate in this private expression of his and others’ religious beliefs. Under these specific circumstances, there was absolutely no constitutional violation by Coach Smith, as he, like all of us, have a First Amendment right under our Federal Constitution and a right under our Mississippi Constitution to freedom of religion.
The allegations by FFRF, taken to their logical conclusion, would prevent any school or government employee from being able to attend a church where a student also attends and prohibit that government employee from ever speaking to students or others at their church about their private religious beliefs. Such allegations are outrageous, ludicrous and in direct contravention of the religious freedoms upon which our country was founded!
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution forbids the government from “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion of private individuals. U.S. Const., Amend. I. This restriction applies to state and local governments through the Fourteenth Amendment. Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 303 (1940); Lovell v. Griffin, 303 U.S. 444, 450 (1938). In addition, the Mississippi Constitution states that “the free enjoyment of all religious sentiments and the different modes of worship shall be held sacred.” Miss. Const., Art. III, Section 18 (1890). The United States Supreme Court has rejected the notion that public school employees relinquish First Amendment rights by virtue of their government employment. See Tinker v. DesMoines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503, 506 (1969) (“It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”); Pickering v. Bd. of Educ., 391 U.S. 563 (1968).
Government may not exclude or suppress the speech of private individuals for the singular reason that their speech is religious. See Good News Club v. Milford Cent. Sch., 533 U.S. 98 (2001); Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of the Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819 (1995); Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette, 515 U.S. 753 (1995); Lamb’s Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384 (1993); Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263 (1981). As the Supreme Court explained in Pinette:
[P]rivate religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular private expression. … Indeed, in Anglo-American history, at least, government suppression of speech has so commonly been directed precisely at religious speech that a free-speech clause without religion would be Hamlet without the prince.
Pinette, 515 U.S. at 760. While the First Amendment forbids religious activity that is established by the government, it also protects religious activity that is initiated by individuals acting privately. As the Court explained in numerous cases, “there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect.” Bd. of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990) (plurality op.).
These assaults on our religious freedoms by those with an agenda to dismantle our Constitution and our founding principles are the exact types of cases MJI was created to litigate. Thank you for your courage in the face of such threats to protect everyone’s right to express their religious beliefs privately in accordance with our federal and state constitutions.
No one likes a bully, and we will not stand by while some out-of-state group threatens our fellow citizens with legal actions for doing nothing more than exercising one’s constitutional rights. The Mississippi Justice Institute stands ready, willing and able to defend the actions of those like you who seek to protect such rights as well as others who simply want to exert their unalienable rights privately, which our state and federal Constitutions were intended to secure.
Mike Hurst, Director
Mississippi Justice Institute
Mississippi Center for Public Policy