- A swim coach in Colorado was denied permission to teach swimming lessons after being accused of using “offensive language” —sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- A Vietnam combat veteran and evangelical Christian in New Jersey was fired from his job as an honor guardsman at a veterans memorial cemetery for saying “God bless you and this family.
- A public school student in Virginia was told he could not distribute religious tracts in the school lunchroom.
On a daily basis, the religious liberties of believers are assaulted in the United States of America. A major source of conflict in our time is the right of religious expression. There remains much confusion between civil authorities, legal experts and Christian citizens about what legal rights exist. While this resource cannot address everything pertaining to free religious liberty, it attempts to update and give insights on contemporary issues relating to religious freedom of expression— and especially to tract distribution.
Since its formation, the Constitution of the United States has had 27 amendments. The first 10 amendments, called the Bill of Rights, were passed by Congress on September 25, 1789. The First Amendment, or Article 1, conveys freedom of religion to all American citizens. It states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
From these rights granted in the First Amendment, one clearly sees that Congress is NOT to:
1. establish a state religion or prohibit the exercise of religion
2. abridge freedom of speech
3. abridge the freedom of the press
4. abridge the right of citizens to peaceably assemble
5. abridge the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances
The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States insures that government will not limit or interfere with freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom to redress the government for grievances when any of the above have been limited or restricted. The First Amendment forbids religious activity sponsored by the government but protects religious activities initiated by private individuals.
The constitutions of all 50 states join the United States Constitution in protecting free speech and religious freedom.
Your Rights Regarding Distribution of Christian Tracts
The distribution of free religious literature isprotected by the First Amendment. When you give away gospel tracts in public places—streets, sidewalks and parks—you are engaged in a form of speech and publication protected by the United States Constitution and civil rights laws. When you speak with someone about the gospel while in a public place, you enjoy constitutional
protection. As long as you are giving away your literature for free and you aren’t panhandling for donations, you are engaging in the most protected form of speech.
1. You have the right to distribute tracts in public areas such as sidewalks, streets, parks, public transportation stations such as airports, bus stations and train stations. Additional public areas include government owned stadiums, convention centers, and federal and state owned tourist attractions such as the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty.
2. You have the right—on your own property or in your own home—to distribute any type of Christian literature. For example, you may give tracts to trick or treaters coming to your home on Halloween.
3. Students have the right to distribute religious literature to classmates on school property.
Suggestions for tract distribution:
- Do not force anyone to take a tract.
- Do not block or constrain another person’s movement in order to give them a tract.
- Students should wait until between classes or after school hours to distribute Christian literature to other students and teachers.
- Public school teachers should meet with students outside of school hours to give out tracts, witness or answer questions about spiritual issues.
- On your own property or in your own home, you have every right to distribute any type of Christian literature.
- If approached by a police officer or anyone questioning your right of religious free expression, be polite. Explain to them you are exercising your First Amendment rights to free speech.
- You should not be required to seek permission or submit applications to exercise First Amendment rights.
- Realize that private property owners have the right to limit First Amendment activities on their property.
No one is better equipped and positioned to shine the light of the gospel into America’s public schools than the students who are compelled by law to attend those schools. Although teachers, administrators, parents, and pastors can all pray for the success of students seeking to live out their faiths while in school, it is the student whose religious expression enjoys full constitutional protections
during the school day.
The following is a list of the activities that today are legally permissible for Christian students in public schools:
- Students may distribute Christian literature to fellow students or teachers on school grounds between classes or after school hours.
- Students may express themselves in prayer. In every state they are free to personally pray before a meal, a sporting event, or a test.
- Students may read the Bible or other devotional material during free-reading times or study halls.
- Students may use notebooks, pencils, and other material with religious logos or sayings, including Bible verses.
- Christian messages on T-shirts, other clothing, or jewelry may be worn unless there is a school uniform requirement.
- Students may write book reports, present speeches, prepare show-and-tell displays, or do artwork using religious themes, if such assignments follow the teacher’s instructions.
- Religious viewpoints may be shared as part of general class discussions when appropriate to the topic.
- Equal access to school newspapers must be given to Christian students the same as to students with a non-Christian point of view.
- Students may sing religious music in a general concert program; such music is not devotional in a concert setting but has general historical and cultural value.
- Students may gather on their own time for devotions before or after the school day.
- Bible clubs may meet (if voluntary and student-initiated) on public secondary school premises during non-instructional time if other non-curriculum related student groups are also permitted to do so.
- A student may speak of God and may offer a prayer in a nonsectarian and nonproselytizing way in a student address at graduation—anywhere in this country.
IN ADDITION: Anyone can have direct access to public school students on the sidewalk areas that abut school property. You may not be prevented from witnessing or distributing tracts on public sidewalks outside schools, as long as the free-speech activity remains orderly, the noise level does not exceed appropriate limits, and there is no interference with the educational activity of the school.
- There is no law stating that the workplace must be a religion-free zone.
- Employers may run their companies in accordance with godly standards.
- Employers may offer and participate in voluntary chapel services and prayer meetings.
- Employees may share their faith with other workers during breaks or free time.
- Employers should not force anyone to participate in religious activities against their will.
- Employers and employees should not ridicule others for their beliefs.
- Employees should not share their faith during work time as this is taking away time that is to be devoted to work.
- Employees should use discernment in sharing their faith. If witnessing becomes disruptive to others at work, seek opportunities
outside the work environment to do so.
The Supreme Court of the United States recognizes that free distribution of literature is a form of expression protected by the Constitution of the United States. The constitutional value of leaflets and pamphlets is not lessened by the fact that they address matters of religion. In fact, this form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits.
Additional Assistance and Resources:
If you believe your right of free religious expression has been infringed, or you have questions about your legal rights to share your Christian faith, contact:
Alliance Defense Fund, 15333 North Pima Road, Scottsdale, AZ
85260, 800-TELL-ADF, www.alliancedefensefund.org
Christian Law Association, P.O. Box 4010, Seminole, FL 33775,
The American Center For Law and Justice, P.O. Box 64429, Virginia
Beach, VA 23467, 757-226-2489, www.aclj.org
The Rutherford Institute, P. O. Box 7482, Charlottesville, VA
22906-7482, 434-978-3888, www.rutherford.org