A legal group focused on religious liberty just threatened National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with a lawsuit in response to the government agency’s censorship of the word “Jesus” from emails.
In a letter sent Monday, the Liberty Institute stated that NASA lawyers pressured a group of employees at the Johnson Space Center to remove the word “Jesus” from a club announcement. This demand took place in May and June of 2015.
These employees had formed a private group within the agency called the JSC Praise and Worship Club, an entity separate from the agency. As part of the group, employees meet together during lunch to pray, and no one is prevented from taking part in the group’s activities.
In an announcement email, one of the employees had used the word “Jesus.” A few days after the email went out, NASA lawyers clamped down and said the use of the word was absolutely unacceptable and would not accept the group’s offer to issue any kind of disclaimer to downplay its use.
The reason it was unacceptable? NASA lawyers didn’t want innocent observers to come to the erroneous conclusion that the space agency endorses Christianity. An official endorsement of Christianity, said the NASA lawyers, would be a violation of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution.
But as far as the Liberty Institute is concerned, downward pressure from NASA lawyers constitutes a violation both of religious liberty and free speech. The emails clearly do not originate from NASA, but rather from employees on behalf of a private spiritual group.
“We are shocked that NASA would censor the name of Jesus from our Praise and Worship Club’s announcement,” Sophia Smith, a NASA employee and club member, told the Liberty Institute. “NASA has a long history of allowing religious speech by employees. In fact, in 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts read from the Bible while they were orbiting the moon, and it was broadcast on TV. So why would they ban ‘Jesus’ from our announcements?”
NASA does in fact have a long history of religious references embedded in its institutional culture. But for now, the employees have agreed to stop using the word, while seeking out every legal alternative possible to fight back.
The Liberty Institute wants NASA to issue a response by March 10 reconsidering its original position. If not, the Liberty Institute is ready to sue the agency.
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