Sunday, February 14, 2016

Can NASA Ban Jesus?

This past week, NASA decided that the use of the word “Jesus” is not to be permitted in the Johnson Space Center newsletter, a newsletter that is sent out electronically to all employees. The newsletter contains messages from any club that chooses to submit and announces upcoming events. The Worship and Praise Club meets to discuss their Christian faith, and the meetings are open to any employees of any religion. Last May, they announced this message in the newsletter:

“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.”

The legal department of NASA called the organization soon after and asked them to remove the word “Jesus” on the basis that allowing it constituted an establishment of religion, thus violating the First Amendment. The club offered to provide a disclaimer that the words were not affiliated with NASA but rather was private speech, but the legal department said that this suggestion to provide a disclaimer was “insufficient” and not accepted. The club has now brought lawsuit to NASA, saying that this censorship is inflicting upon the free speech and religion of the members. 

Though not entirely the same, this case reminded me of the Supreme Court decision in Everson v.Board of Education of Ewing Township, which is a landmark case for the establishment of religion. The township passed a law to reimburse the parents of students who took buses to and from both public and Catholic schools. The Court ruled this constitutional and said in the majority opinion that by allowing the reimbursements of both types of schools, the state was remaining neutral to religion. If the state did not give the reimbursements to the Catholic schools, they would be disadvantaging a religion. To compare, by not allowing the word “Jesus” in the newsletter, NASA is disadvantaging a religion and giving free speech rights only to other non-religious groups. Both surround the issue of the establishment of a religion.

NASA should not be censoring the word “Jesus” from the Johnson Space Center newsletter for a number of reasons. To begin, the legal department used the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment as justification for not allowing the word. However, just the word “Jesus” itself is not religious in nature, although affiliated with a number of religions. And in this context, the group was not saying that anyone in attendance had to believe in him or had to pray, but rather expressed their own views. By censoring the newsletter for this religious group, NASA is infringing upon the free speech clause of the First Amendment as well. It is clearly stated that the ideas, opinions, and interests of the club are those of the club alone and not affiliated with the beliefs of the NASA organization itself.  

In addition, according to the majority opinion written by Justice Black in the Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, “the ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this…neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa”. This can be applied to the case here. While NASA is neither a state nor the federal government, it is acting as the governing body of the Worship and Praise Club. NASA should not have the authority to tell this club what they are allowed to say in the newsletter, especially because the club is separate from NASA.


What do you think? Does NASA have the right to censor the newsletter that is sent out to all of its employees? Does this violate the First Amendment of the United States Constitution? Is allowing the word “Jesus” to be used an establishment of religion?

9 comments:

Rebecca J said...

I think an important point to consider in this case is that NASA is a federally funded organization. Even if somewhat indirectly, the money that NASA uses to support the Johnson space center and its newsletter could very well come from taxpayers throughout the United States. It is likely that not all of these taxpayers actually believe in Jesus or practice any form of religion in their lives. One must ask then whether using taxpayer money to publish something that could help promote a religious group could constitute an establishment of religion. As a government funded organization, NASA could be accused of breaching the wall between church and state by using taxpayer money to publish something religious in a newsletter. While they are not limiting anyone's ability to freely practice religion and believe what they choose, they may be causing citizens to support a religion they do not support or even just to support religion at all. Maintaining a truly rigid separation of church and state and fully protecting from any possible threat to the first amendment in this context would mean that NASA's censorship of the newsletter is in fact constitutional since the money used to fund it comes from the government and our country's taxpayers.

Lucy Fishell said...

I agree with the comment above, the fact that NASA is federally funded does muddy the waters significantly. Though the Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township case is similar, I think the differences between these two incidents are pivotal. When using 'Jesus', the newsletter is directly referencing christianity and having NASA use their resources to send out a newsletter containing this officiates Jesus with NASA and is in violation Establishment Clause. In the Everson case the concurring argument said "Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will", If NASA sent out a newsletter using 'Jesus' would go directly against that.

Alex Puleo said...

It is important to recognize that NASA is federally funded organization, and the usage of the word "Jesus" in their newsletter does indeed endorse the Christian religion. And through the endorsement of the Christian religion, it may be argued that NASA is thus furthering the establishment of the Christian religion. While it may be argued that the group was not forcing readers or attendees to participate in worship or prayer, the mere act of publicizing their religious group through a federally funded organization may be deemed as the establishment of religion.

Matthew L. said...

I agree with the stance you took on this issue as the removal of the ad was disadvantaging the group from successfully spreading the word about their meeting. Furthermore, by citing the results of cases, and more specifically the majority opinions presented on these cases, I believe that your argument became incredibly more sound. When I first began to read, I understood NASA’s take on the situation as not all groups of faith groups acknowledge Jesus, so they did not see it fit to have the word appearing in its bulletin. However, having read your argument, and revisiting the cases that you highlighted, I agree that by not allowing it to appear in the bulletin, where any other religion can also publish their activities, they are disadvantaging one religion and it becomes un-Constitutional.

Rosalie said...

It is problematic to have a federally funded institute using any religious words or messages such as "Jesus" in the newsletter. I think if there is any "wall" so to speak, it should be between religion and space travel. The word "Jesus" certainly is religious in nature. He represents the beginnings of Christianity by preaching it, and it's safe to say that the majority of people know who Jesus is and affiliate him with Christianity. However, you're right -- occasionally someone will chime in that Jesus was Jewish as an afterthought. Furthermore, the courts have stated that religious speech can be curtailed in certain spaces.

Natalie K. said...

I believe that NASA does not have the right to censor the newsletter because the Worship and Praise Club is a completely separate organization from the federally funded space center. Therefore, due the freedom of speech and expression, the club has the right to express its own views and promote its events. I think that the club was very accommodating of different religious viewpoints and understanding of NASA’s governmental ties when it offered to provide a disclaimer after its announcement in the newsletter. However, the legal department failed to recognize this and instead wrongfully believed that allowing the usage of the word “Jesus” is the equivalent of forcing it on people, thus establishing a religion.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I do not believe that NASA has the right to censor the Worship and Praise Club from using the word "Jesus" just because it is affiliated with religion. The employees of NASA are not being forced to read this newsletter but are electing to do so, and reading the word "Jesus" within a post written by a religious group is in no way a form of coercion or religious benefit in comparison to other religions. Because the group even offered to provide a disclaimer statement and was denied. The NASA Legal Department should have recognized that this denial is a discrimination of religion and an infringement of Worship and Praise Club's freedom of religious practice and speech.

Kiriko Masek said...

I believe that the Worship and Praise Club had the right to be able to use the word "Jesus" in its message. I believe this because any club is allowed to post messages in the NASA newsletter, and if any other religious club wanted to publish a message using religiously affiliated words, they would be able to do so. By not allowing the club to use the word "Jesus" is discriminating against the religious association and purposefully singling the club out because of its religious affiliation. The club is not funded by NASA and has no direct affiliation with NASA and should therefore be allowed to practice its freedom of speech and use the word "Jesus" in its description.

Sarah A said...

The use of the word "Jesus" seems to be the contention point for many people here. For me, I am having trouble seeing the difference between "God" and "Jesus" as religious terms. "god" refers to a subset or religious people in the same way that "Jesus" is relevant to a subset of people. Since Christianity is not one religion, just as monotheistic religions are not all one, I think that these two terms should receive equal treatment. Since the Federal government has ruled in the past that things like "in god we trust" are constitutional, i think that this case should follow in those footsteps.