HOUSTON, Texas – A Johnson Space Center (JSC) Christian club had it’s e-mail meeting announcement censored by NASA lawyers because it included the word “Jesus” in it. The Liberty Institute sent NASA a demand letter this week threatening to file a federal lawsuit.
Lawyers for the club say that the employees’ religious liberty and free speech rights have been violated.
The Liberty Institute and volunteer lawyers from the Fish and Richardson law firm are representing the club and sixteen of the club’s members.
Employees were told to cease using the word “Jesus” in club meeting announcements because doing so would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The club, like other employee groups at the JSC, routinely submit meeting announcements and they are included in NASA’s daily email newsletter.
In 2001, the JSC Praise and Worship Club began meeting during lunch to sing Christian songs and discuss matters of Christian faith. The meetings are open to all NASA employees and contract workers.
In May 2015, club members submitted the following announcement:
Join with the praise and worship band ‘Allied with the Lord’ for a refreshing set of spring praise and worship songs on Thursday, June 4, from 11:15 a.m. to noon in Building 57, Room 106. (The theme for this session will be “Jesus is our life!”) Prayer partners will be available for anyone who has need. All JSC civil servants and contractors are welcome.
Lawyers with the Liberty Institute and the law firm in Dallas sent a letter this week demanding that corrective action be taken to allow the employees to use the word “Jesus” and other religious references. They threatened a federal lawsuit because “censoring of the club’s religious viewpoint is a violation of federal law and the First Amendment.”
“The purpose of our club is simply to encourage one another, pray together, and worship God,” club spokeswoman Sophia Smith said. “Our meetings are open to anyone who would like prayer or is interested in what we do.”
“It is illegal for the government to censor the name of Jesus in employee emails,” said Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for Liberty Institute. “Censoring a religious club’s announcement to specifically exclude the name ‘Jesus’ is blatant religious discrimination.” Dys added, “NASA administrators are not above the law. Government employers are required to respect the civil rights of its civil servants and contract employees—regardless of their religious viewpoint.”
Lawyers with the Liberty Institute say that NASA JSC’s censorship of the Praise and Worship Club is inconsistent with NASA’s own history in respecting the private, religious speech of its employees.
In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, and Frank Borman, read the Creation account from Genesis 1 while orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve. Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair sued NASA over this and lost in the 1969 case of O’Hair v. Payne. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin celebrated communion on Apollo 11, and President Nixon led the nation in prayer in April 1970 as America awaited the return of Apollo 13. There has also been a Jewish blessing offered on the space shuttle, and Muslim prayers have been recited in the International Space Station.
“NASA’s public history is one of freedom of religious expression for its employees,” said Kelly Shackelford, Liberty Institute President and CEO. “If NASA could accommodate the religious expressions of past civil servants, why not a praise and worship club’s simple announcement?”
The letter from the Fish and Richardson law firm signed by Carl E. Bruce asks NASA JSC to “reconsider its position and notify us, in writing, that NASA will remove its prohibition of the use of the name ‘Jesus’ from the Club’s future advertisements.” A response is requested by March 10, 2016. The lawyers for the club members assert, “Should we receive no response (or an inadequate one) by that date, we are prepared to enforce the Club’s rights in court, where we believe we will win.”
Lana Shadwick is a writer and legal analyst for Breitbart Texas. She has served as an associate judge and prosecutor. Follow her on Twitter @LanaShadwick2