It should come as no surprise to find religion mixed with sports in America. From Tim Tebow’s eye black to teams huddled in prayer at the 50-yard line after games, American athletes routinely exercise their religion — before, during, and after games. With these public displays comes needless, often intimidating complaints that are probably better ignored.
The latest complaint came just this week. A group known for making noisy, public complaints about religion in public life groused to the Cameron R-1 School District in Cameron, Missouri. In a letter bearing the rough semblance of a legal demand letter, the group makes several unsubstantiated claims upon the school’s superintendent. Ultimately, they demand an investigation and that he “take immediate action” to end any religious activity supposedly occurring in violation of the Constitution.
Surprisingly, when school districts receive letters like these, they too often take them seriously. Perhaps you would too if you didn’t know any better. After all, legal cases are cited, a lawyer signs it, and one assumes that a lawsuit could follow if what they say is actually true. But something always seems to be missing. An important something: A litigant.
Fundamentally, unless a lawyer, law firm, or legal organization identifies a plaintiff — a parent and/or student actually aggrieved by any of the alleged conduct attributable to the school district — the letter is meritless. It amounts to little more than a public gripe. In the age of web crawlers and Google Alerts, even the claim that a local resident may have complained about the situation should be suspect.
There are important reasons to ignore anonymous complaints. Federal courts were not established to serve roving bands of censors and scolds. Only those with legitimate, legal standing are permitted to challenge complained-of behavior. Phantom complaints should be ignored lest school officials be goaded into unlawful behavior that suppresses activity otherwise protected by the Constitution.
Earlier this year, in the context of monuments, memorials, and other public displays invoking religion, Justice Samuel Alito explained in The American Legion v. AHA that, “A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion.”
History is replete with regimes that aggressively destroy public religious symbols and monuments. Modern governments, to this day, continue to assert control over the public expression of religion by their citizens. As President Trump recently observed in front of the United Nations, religious persecution is more the rule worldwide than America’s exception in protecting our core, national value of religious liberty.
This truth led Justice Alito to conclude in The American Legion: “Militantly secular regimes have carried out such projects in the past, and for those with a knowledge of history, the image of monuments being taken down will be evocative, disturbing, and divisive.”
Similarly divisive, and equally evocative of repressive regimes throughout history, and to this day, would be a school district catering to the interests of an organization that “roams the land” seeking to coerce school officials into taking unnecessary action that could very well lurch into the realm of hostility toward religion.
Courts require justiciable issues in order to access justice. Justiciable issues are presented by human beings actually aggrieved — what lawyers call having proper “standing.” Disembodied complainants rarely meet the rigid demands of civil procedure.
Government officials that receive such letters should wait until a plaintiff is identified. Assuming any and all religious expression is unconstitutional and taking action to put a stop to it — based on little more than an anonymous complaint — may actually increase liability.
Religious liberty is a hallmark of our nation’s brand of freedom. The free exercise of religion, protected by the First Amendment, guarantees the rights of all citizens to exercise their faith. That freedom should not be casually limited by mere complaints from unidentified sources voiced by those who fund national television advertisements that mock religion.
If folks at the nation’s athletic events are offended by the presence of religion, they would do well to follow the advice of Judge James Clinkscales Hill, writing for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Chandler v. Siegelman, that they are “free not to listen, and to express their disagreement by not participating in any way.”
Jeremy Dys (@JeremyDys) is Special Counsel for Litigation and Communications for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.