God’s Not Dead 2, the sequel to the 2014 surprise hit, centers on a high school teacher who is forced to defend herself in court after speaking about Jesus in her classroom. While the storyline sounds like one that is antithetical to American values, Erik Stanley, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, argues it’s not as farfetched as you may think.
“I think that what happened in the movie illustrates what has happened in classrooms across the country already,” Stanley told Townhall. “Students and people of faith, teachers included, are silenced simply because of their religious beliefs.”
Stanley referenced a case he litigated in 2010. His client, Professor Kenneth Howell at the University of Illinois, was teaching an “Introduction to Roman Catholicism” course and got into trouble from the university for explaining Catholic teachings on human sexuality, albeit in a neutral way. After defending Howell’s First Amendment rights, Stanley and the rest of the teacher's representation were victorious. You can read more about Dr. Howell’s story here.
The subplot in God’s Not Dead 2 is also one with which Stanley is all too familiar. A religious witch-hunt ensues after local officials subpoena pastors and demand to see their sermons. An almost similar scenario unfolded in Houston a couple of years ago, when the city, led by Mayor Annise Parker, demanded to see communications belonging to local pastors.
“I certainly think that what the pastors experienced in Houston was unique in the sense that we had not seen that before,” Stanley recalled. “It really was nothing more than an intimidation tactic intended to silence the pastors, to send a message: you better not stand up, you better not express your faith in this way."
Once again, Stanley and religious freedom escaped as victors; Parker withdrew the subpoenas even before the case reached the courtroom.
“The city withdrew the subpoenas because the outcry was so great from all across the country,” he explained. “That was certainly a unique situation, but I think it illustrates some of the links that some people in power and governmental officials will go to to silence those people of faith.”
Stanley recalled how the subpoenas made the pastors more determined than ever to preach what was in their heart.
“I think these five pastors were actually more determined to preach the truth,” Stanley said. “They kind of viewed it as bit of a challenge and they weren’t going to be intimidated.”
Yet, their courage may not be shared by other religious leaders who worry what may happen to their churches should they stand up to the government, Stanley admitted.
“But I wonder how many other pastors who were in Houston, saw what was going on and felt the need to tone down what was going on,” he said.
While the situation in Houston was an extreme one, it is typical of a trend that has been occurring all too often in a culture that is becoming less and less tolerant of Christians.
“There’s been a constant drumbeat for a number of years that pastors should not speak out on matters that are ‘political,’” Stanley said. “I think that that intensified with Houston and even though we were successful, I do think that some pastors might look at that and say well I don’t want to get anywhere close to that because I might find myself embroiled in controversy.”
One positive consequence of the Houston incident: It awoke religious leaders all across America.
“It certainly made a lot of pastors across the country angry,” he said. “There are pastors I had not heard from in years since my childhood who had contacted me and were ready to get on a bus or plane and go to Houston and stand with these pastors.”
The subpoenas were, he said, “the most blatant form of governmental intrusion" he'd ever seen and "outrageous" by any standard.
His only regret, he said, was that he “never got to go to court and argue the issue because the mayor backed down too quickly.”
Stanley may get the chance sooner than he thinks, however, considering how religious freedom is being trampled on lately.
The solution, Stanley offered, is to create an environment where pastors need not fear the pulpit.
“We’ve got to create not just the protection when these issues come, but an atmosphere that values religious freedom, values religious expression, and values tolerance and diversity, to use the word of the other side on this issue.”
“We send a strong message that this is not going to be tolerated,” he insisted. “We are not going to tolerate government intrusion into the church.”
In the near term, Stanley predicts the attacks on religious freedom will come in a different form than subpoenas.
"I think the attacks on religious freedom are going to be broad and varied,” he noted. “Even Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts warned, in the Obergefelle same-sex marriage decision, that religious freedom was in peril as a result of that decision. We're starting to see that now in a lot of attacks on freedom of conscience.”
His current client is an apt representation of the Obergefelle v. Hodges SCOTUS ruling. Barronelle Stutzman is a grandmother florist in Washington who could lose everything she owns – her business, her home, her personal assets – “simply because she wants to run her business according to her faith,” Stanley explained. Stutzman has served homosexual customers at her business, yet doesn't want to be compelled to participate in a same-sex marriage ceremony, so the Washington state attorney general has accused her of unlawful discrimination. After prompting from the ADF, the Washington Supreme Court has agreed to take her case.
"Last I checked, the attacks are only going to increase in number and in intensity," Stanley said.
That’s why films like God’s Not Dead 2 are so significant.
"One thing the film does is show the teacher standing up and fighting for her constitutional rights. That's something we encourage Christians to do when they encounter this type of opposition. What we have found over the years is more often than not, when we stand up, we win.”
When we don't, Stanley said, religious freedom isn't only in jeopardy for a particular client, but for generations to come.
To find out more about Alliance Defending Freedom and their efforts to protect your religious liberties, check out their website here. Don’t forget to get your tickets to God’s Not Dead 2, now in theaters.