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 Case Background

The NASA JSC Praise and Worship Club began in 2001, with members meeting during the lunch hour to discuss matters of the Christian faith and sing Christian songs. The club meetings are open to all NASA JSC civil servants and contract employees. First Liberty and volunteer attorneys from Fish & Richardson represent the club and 16 of its individual members.

“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.”

Like any other employee group at the JSC, the Praise and Worship Club routinely submits announcements about its meetings to the JSC Today, NASA’s daily email newsletter to everyone who works at the JSC. In May 2015, the club organizers 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.

Club organizers received no warning from newsletter editors that the word “Jesus” would be a problem when submitting the announcement, which ran in JSC Today on May 28, 2015.

NASA Bans ‘Jesus’

Shortly after the announcement was published in JSC Today, the NASA JSC legal team called the club organizers, informing them that the name “Jesus” could no longer appear in any future announcements. The NASA attorneys claimed including “Jesus” was “sectarian,” possibly creating the perception that NASA was endorsing Christianity over other religions and non-religion, and thus violating the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

“We are shocked that NASA would censor the name of Jesus from our Praise and Worship Club’s announcement,” said Sophia Smith. “NASA has a long history of allowing the religious speech of its employees, so why would they ban ‘Jesus’ from our announcements?”

Generic religious references and secular speech, like announcements for soccer camps, Latin Dance classes—or even Praise and Worship Club announcements without the name “Jesus”—are still permitted in JSC Today.

“It is illegal for the government to censor the name of Jesus in employee emails,” said Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for First Liberty. “Censoring a religious club’s announcement to specifically exclude the name ‘Jesus’ is blatant religious discrimination.”

“NASA administrators are not above the law,” Dys added, “Government employers are required to respect the civil rights of its civil servants and contract employees—regardless of their religious viewpoint.”

NASA’s Long History of Employee Religious Speech

NASA JSC’s censorship of the Praise and Worship Club is inconsistent with NASA’s own history. For decades, NASA has respected the private, religious speech of its employees without issue on many prominent occasions. For example,

  • In February of 1962, NASA astronaut Scott Carpenter quipped, “Godspeed, John Glenn” as Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.
  • Astronaut Gordon Cooper selected the name “Faith 7” for the Mercury spacecraft that would orbit the earth 22 times in May of 1963, in part, because of his personal faith in God.
  • 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. (The infamous atheist, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, sued NASA over this—and lost—in O’Hair v. Payne, 1969.)
  • Astronaut Buzz Aldrin famously celebrated communion on Apollo 11.
  • President Nixon led the nation in prayer in April of 1970 as America anxiously awaited the return of Apollo 13.
  • There has even been a Jewish blessing offered on the space shuttle and Muslim prayers recited in the International Space Station.

“NASA’s public history is one of freedom of religious expression for its employees,” said Kelly Shackelford, First Liberty President and CEO. “If NASA could accommodate the religious expressions of past civil servants, why not a praise and worship club’s simple announcement?”

Legal Action

When instructed to exclude “Jesus” from all future announcements, club organizers agreed to comply for the time being, while exploring the club’s legal options. Club organizers turned to First Liberty to correct NASA’s illegal action.

On Monday, February 8, 2016, First Liberty and volunteer attorneys from Fish & Richardson issued a demand letter to NASA JSC. The letter informed NASA JSC’s legal team of NASA’s grave violation of its employees’ religious liberty and free speech rights.  The letter threatens a federal lawsuit should NASA fail to immediately correct the problem.

On February 18, NASA sent a letter to attorneys at First Liberty Institute and Fish & Richardson, confirming that its attorneys expressed concerns to the JSC Praise and Worship club over announcements including the name “Jesus,” citing fears that the announcements were “proselytizing” and “inappropriate.” However, in its letter, NASA confirmed that they will not prohibit the use of “Jesus” in any future announcements.

On February 17, NASA ran this announcement in their employee newsletter:

Join with the praise and worship band “Allied with the Lord” for a refreshing set of praise and worship songs on Wednesday, March 9, from 11:15 a.m. to noon in Building 57, Room 106. (The theme for this session will be “Jesus Is our Victory! “) Prayer partners will be available for anyone who has need. All JSC civil servants and contractors are welcome.

Jeremy Dys, Senior Counsel for First Liberty, says, “Although NASA’s initial censorship of the name ‘Jesus’ gave the Praise & Worship Club cause for alarm, we are grateful NASA took subsequent corrective action, and now clarifies its policy permitting religious expression by its employees. Whether for an employee praise and worship club email announcement or the words spoken by an astronaut in orbit, employees in America enjoy religious liberty at work.”

 

Photo to Download – Courtesy of First Liberty