Did NASA Ban Jesus?

A shady legal organization claims that NASA employees were censored when their worship group mentioned Jesus in a newsletter.

02.11.16 5:01 AM ET

Did NASA ban the word “Jesus” as Fox News and several other conservative media outlets suggested this week? Not exactly.

What is clear, though, is that all of those headlines accusing America’s space agency of being censorious are based on allegations from an anti-LGBT legal organization that has a long history of taking on questionable cases like these.

According to the Plano, Texas-based Liberty Institute, NASA employees belonging to the Praise and Worship Club at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston submitted an announcement about an upcoming meeting for inclusion in a center-wide email newsletter. That announcement invited the JSC to sing praise and worship songs, noting that “[t]he theme for this session will be ‘Jesus is our life!’”

The Liberty Institute maintains that NASA attorneys then called the club organizers and told them that the word “Jesus” could not appear in their official announcements.

“The NASA attorneys claimed including ‘Jesus’ was ‘sectarian,’ possibly creating the perception that NASA was endorsing Christianity over other religions and non-religion, and thus violating the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution,” the legal organization wrote in its press release.

In a demand letter, the Liberty Institute is threatening to file a federal lawsuit against NASA unless the Praise and Worship Club is allowed to write “Jesus” in its newsletter announcements within 30 days. In response, NASA denied allegations of censorship in a statement to The Hill.

“NASA does not prohibit the use of any specific religious names in employee newsletters or other internal communications,” said NASA media relations officer Karen Northon.

“The agency allows a host of employee-led civic, professional, religious, and other organizations to meet on NASA property on employees’ own time. Consistent with federal law, NASA attempts to balance employees’ rights to freely exercise religious beliefs with its obligation to ensure there is no government endorsement of religion. We believe in and encourage open and diverse dialogue among our employees and across the agency.”

Northon did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for further comment or clarification.

The Daily Beast asked the Liberty Institute whether or not they had evidence that NASA had specifically targeted the term “Jesus” apart from the Praise and Worship Club’s recounting of a phone call. They do not.

“NASA’s lawyers communicated their decision to ban the name ‘Jesus’ only over the phone to our clients,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel for the Liberty Institute, told The Daily Beast. “It was a lengthy conversation in which the lawyer made clear that she was communicating the decision of the general counsel’s office, a decision she indicated the general counsel’s office had arrived at after some discussion among NASA’s attorneys.”

If NASA did ban the word “Jesus” from a center-wide newsletter, the Praise and Worship Club is still clearly welcome to say it at their meetings and to organize those meetings in the first place. A quick scan of the JSC’s office list of clubs shows that the Praise and Worship Club is the sole religious organization, hence NASA’s possible reluctance to be seen as endorsing Christianity by posting an announcement for a single worship group with the words “Jesus is our life!” included in the text.

The First Amendment protects the “free exercise” of religion, but the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment restricts the government from endorsing religion, or from preferring one religion to another.

The Liberty Institute, however, has a long history of picking up Establishment Clause cases like this one to argue that religious exercise is being restricted. They have also worked to protect anti-LGBT speech under the banner of religious freedom.

Last January, for example, former Ford Motor Company contractor Thomas Banks filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint alleging that he had been fired based on his religious beliefs. What, in fact, happened is that Banks had written a long anti-gay comment in a company forum, writing, among other things: “Never in the history of mankind has a culture survived that promotes sodomy. Heterosexual behavior creates life—homosexual behavior leads to death.”

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The Liberty Institute took on the case.

In 2014, a Christian father in Florida claimed that his kindergarten-age daughter had been told not to pray in the lunchroom, spawning a similar flurry of headlines from Fox News and other outlets. A school investigation found “zero evidence the incident ever occurred.” Todd Starnes, the columnist who drew attention to the alleged incident on Fox News, was about to release a book at the time about the supposed attack on Christian values in America. Starnes’s publisher, Charisma House, employed the father in Starnes’s story.

The Liberty Institute was there to draw attention to the case.

That same year, when President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity for federal contractors, the Liberty Institute responded online, calling the concept of gender identity, which protects transgender employees, a “trap door to sexual nihilism.” The Liberty Institute has also spoken out against everything from the Boy Scouts of America’s decision to allow openly gay scout leaders to the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage to the passage of San Antonio’s LGBT non-discrimination ordinance.

What happened on the purported phone call between NASA attorneys and general counsel may never be known, or it may emerge in the lawsuit that the Liberty Institute has threatened to file if they don’t receive a response by March 10.

For now, the Liberty Institute is holding the line, maintaining that keeping “Jesus” out of the JSC newsletter is tantamount to censorship.

“It is not consistent with federal law, specifically the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to censor employees' religious speech,” Dys told The Daily Beast. “If NASA says they will no longer censor their employee’s speech, we’ll take them at their word. However, if they go back to their old ways, we’ll take appropriate legal action. All we are asking is for NASA to respect the rights of their employees to religious expression.”