You may remember Walt Tutka. Walt gave a Bible to a student who asked for one and was promptly relieved of his substitute teaching duties at a school in Philipsburg, New Jersey. That was back in 2013.
This week, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sided with Tutka saying the school discriminated against him on the basis of religion. Tutka now has been reinstated.
Hiram Sasser of First Liberty Institute, which represented Tutka, said they were pleased that they accomplished what they set out to achieve.
“We always knew Walt complied with all school district policies and federal laws,” Sasser said. “The EEOC agreed, and now Walt is returning to his service to the community in Philipsburg.”
After hearing Tutka say “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” a student asked him about the quote, then asked more about the Bible, and ultimately asked if he could have one. Tutka, a member of the Gideons, gave him a pocket New Testament.
But Tutka wasn’t the only victim here. The young man in the case had his religious freedoms violated as well. In fact, students of faith are finding themselves faced with more and more challenges to their religious freedoms, but state legislatures are answering with laws to strengthen First Amendment protections.
In Indiana, the Legislature passed and Gov. Eric Holcomb has vowed to sign, a bill that adds even more protections for students. Indiana House Bill 1024 allows public schools to teach survey courses on world religions, affirms students’ right to pray in school and to express their religious views in their schoolwork. It also allows students to wear jewelry and clothing with religious symbols and will give religious student groups access to school facilities.
Last year, a school in Carmel, Indiana, removed a pro-life group’s poster saying it violated policy. Teens for Life sued, and the two came to a settlement, allowing the sign to be put up for a pre-determined amount of time. Ryan McCann, director of operations and public policy at the Indiana Family Institute, one of Family Policy Alliance’s 40 state-based allies, said passage of the new law may have been a reaction to this incident.
“We’d hope that all schools are protecting the First Amendment rights of all students,” he said, “but we just know, unfortunately, that that’s not always the case.”
These cases highlight the fact that more laws need to be passed to make sure that free speech is stronger than ever.
“The rights of students to express themselves according to their faith is no longer a given,” said Autumn Leva, policy and communications director for Family Policy Alliance. “But if states will follow Indiana’s lead and enact laws to protect those Constitutional rights, then we have a chance to restore free speech as the Founding Fathers envisioned. And that would be good for students, teachers, faculty and parents alike.”
A pamphlet put out by the Iowa Civil Rights Commission has churches wondering if they may be forced to allow men access to women’s restrooms in places of worship.
The brochure argues that since churches are public places, they are required to comply with sexual orientation and gender identity laws.
First Liberty Institute is representing Cornerstone World Outreach, a church in Sioux City. Hiram Sasser is the group’s director of litigation.
“It (the Commission’s brochure) further compels our client to use specific pronouns when referring to certain gender identities,” he told Todd Starnes of Fox News, “and prohibits our client from even teaching its religious beliefs.
“Cornerstone World Outreach cannot be made to open its restrooms for use by individuals in accordance with their gender identities, rather than their sex assigned at birth.”
The Family Leader of Iowa is one of Family Policy Alliance’s nearly 40 state-based family policy groups. They’re concerned the free speech of pastors could be next.
“Banning what preachers can say? That kind of government intrusion into church doctrine is exactly what the Bill of Rights was written to prevent,” said Bob Vander Plaats, executive director of the group. “But when Iowa’s policy effectively becomes, ‘Call it a sin, and the government steps in,’ we no longer have a First Amendment. Even talking about God’s design for male and female might make someone feel ‘unwelcome’ and prompt government action. That’s wrong.”
Paul Weber, president and CEO of Family Policy Alliance, said it was clearly the next move by activists.
“We’ve known that this would never stop at civil unions, equal rights, or marriage,” he said. “This has always been on the agenda and churches must realize they are not immune from this fight. If they want to maintain their religious freedom, they’re going to have to stand up and say ‘enough is enough’.”