New school year spurs religious liberty battles
CHICAGO – The 2019 school year has brought religious liberty challenges for college and high school students in the U.S., including action in Illinois, Tennessee and North Carolina.
In Illinois, four Wheaton College students have sued the city of Chicago for the right to distribute religious flyers and preach in a public park after the city set new rules against such action.
In Tennessee, two high schools faced backlash from the Freedom from Religion Foundation when a coach led players in prayer before a football game in Rutherford County, and after a Southern Baptist youth pastor baptized two football players on the field after team practice at a Robertson County school.
At North Carolina's Duke University, the Young Life national Christian group has been denied recognition as an official student group because it bars members of the LGBT community from holding leadership posts.
As members of the Chicago Evangelism Team, four Wheaton students are fighting for the right to continue their weekly Friday night evangelism visits in Millennium Park on the city's iconic Michigan Avenue.
"This case," reads the lawsuit, "is about keeping secure the liberty of public citizens, in general, and the four student plaintiffs, specifically, to freely engage in speech activities at Millennium Park – a public park and a traditional public forum."
Students and plaintiffs Matt Swart, Jeremy Chong, Gabriel Emerson and Caeden Hood are challenging new rules the city set that divide the park into 11 "outdoor rooms," prohibits free speech in 10 of them, and limits certain "unlawful" conduct that the plaintiffs' attorneys said include evangelism.
The rules, established in August, violate the students' right to free exercise of religion protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Article 1 of the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and Section 15 of the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1998, the lawsuit says.
"The City has no compelling interest with which to justify its continual interference with the Students' religious activities within a traditional public forum," the lawsuit reads. "The City has no compelling interest to limit the Students' religious speech activities to one corner of a public park."
The case cites action dating back to December 2018 when Millennium Park security staff told Swart, Hood, and four fellow students they were not allowed to distribute free religious literature in the park. Hood was also prohibited from open-air preaching after the students stopped distributing flyers. On subsequent occasions, Chong and other students were also prohibited from preaching in the park. Park rules were later amended to restrict free speech to a limited section of the park.
The evangelism team, according to the lawsuit, is sponsored by Wheaton's Office of Christian Outreach. But Wheaton is not a party to the legal action, the school's media relations office said in a statement.
"While Wheaton College is not a party to the complaint filed by four of our students against the City of Chicago," reads the statement Baptist Press received Thursday, Sept. 26, "as a Christian liberal arts institution, we are strongly supportive of free speech and the right to bear verbal witness to the Christian faith."
The students filed the lawsuit Sept. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois.
Attorneys for the city of Chicago had not filed an answer to the suit and did not respond to BP's inquiries by press time Friday.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) complained to two Tennessee school boards about religious actions involving football teams.
Following the latest complaint, a group of Rockvale High School football students will lead a prayer before their Friday, Sept. 27, home game after the FFRF complained about a coach-led prayer Aug. 30, National Public Radio (NPR) reported Thursday.
Coach Rick Rice apologized for the prayer after the principal at the Rutherford County school reviewed the complaint with Rice, NPR said.
Also in Tennessee, the FFRF complained to the Robertson County School District after two students were baptized at Springfield High School Aug. 7 after football practice.
District Superintendent Chris Causey affirmed that students had the right to participate in the baptisms because the coaches are volunteers not employed by the district, The Tennessean newspaper reported Sept. 11.
In a similar incident, the U.S. Supreme Court declined in January to hear an appeal from former football coach Joe Kennedy. He was fired in 2015 for praying on the field at Bremerton High School in Washington, and most recently lost his lawsuit in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
At Duke University, the Duke Student Government Senate refused Sept. 11 to recognize Young Life as an official campus group, the independent student paper The Chronicle reported.
Young Life, which describes itself as a ministry working to introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in faith, is bound by the group's national sexual misconduct policy, a student told the Chronicle.
"We do not in any way wish to exclude persons who engage in sexual misconduct or who practice a homosexual lifestyle from being recipients of ministry of God's grace and mercy as expressed in Jesus Christ," the policy reads. "We do, however, believe that such persons are not to serve as staff or volunteers in the mission and work of Young Life."
Young Life has chapters in middle schools, high schools and colleges in all 50 states and more than 90 countries, according younglife.org.
Written by Baptist Press, the official news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.