In The Public Arena

NASA Illegally Censors ‘Jesus’ from Employee Emails, Liberty Institute Issues Demand Letter   

 

 

At Issue: The freedom of religious expression for government employees

Case Status: Ongoing

Case Summary

In June 2015, attorneys at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas told employees that they could no longer mention the name “Jesus” in e-newsletter announcements for their Praise and Worship club. They claimed that mentioning “Jesus” in NASA JCS’s e-newsletter would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Liberty Institute attorneys responded on February 8, 2016 with a demand letter threatening a federal lawsuit against NASA if the practice is not corrected. 

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. Liberty Institute 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 Liberty Institute. “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, 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?”

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 Liberty Institute to correct NASA’s illegal action.

On Monday, February 8, 2016, Liberty Institute 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.

Legal Documents

Demand Letter to NASA JSC


Photos to Download - Courtesy of Liberty Institute 

Sophia Mao Smith, P.E., is a member of the Johnson Space Center Praise and Worship club and has a 30 year history at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She began her career at the Space Shuttle Program and currently works in the International Space Station Program Office (ISSPO) at NASA.  


Resource

Please read and forward Liberty Institute’s online 7 Facts about Religious Rights in the Workplace


FOR YOUR ACTION:

Please sign the Letter of Support to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) employees and contractors and their freedom of religious expression.

To the Civil Servants, Employees and Contractors at JSC,

I would like to say thank you. Thank you for serving our nation through your work for NASA, and for taking a stand on behalf of all government employees and contractors and their right to free religious expression.

I was disappointed to learn that the lawyers at JSC prohibited you from using the name “Jesus” in email announcements for your Praise and Worship Club meetings. This directly contradicts NASA’s long tradition of respecting the religious liberty of its civil servants, employees and contractors—a tradition all Americans should applaud and defend. 

I’m encouraged you have chosen to stand for your religious liberty rights. I’m also heartened that you are so committed that you have obtained expert attorneys to help you vindicate your rights. I want you to know that I support you and your right to freely express your religious beliefs, and to include the name of Jesus in your email announcements. I will continue to stand with you as this case progresses.

Support NASA Employees

Support NASA Employees

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FOR YOUR ACTION:

Please sign the Letter of Support to NASA employees to stand against this attack on their religious freedom.

 

 

 
 

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