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By David J. Hacker

As a pastor, you see them—the signs of a new school year are all around us.  The teachers you shepherd are preparing for a new year teaching a new class of students. Yellow school buses are back on the roads, parents are taking advantage of back-to-school specials, and recently empty school parking lots are now buzzing with activity.  Your church is likely also in the swing of things, promoting Sunday school kids from one grade to the next and starting a new year of curriculum.  But with the start of school—whether kindergarten or college—comes many questions about students sharing their faith on campus.  There are things you as a pastor should know to help guide your congregation during the school year.

Religion is Allowed in Public Schools

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the right of students of all ages to express their religious beliefs on campus.  As the U.S. Supreme Court said nearly twenty years ago, private religious speech is not a “First Amendment orphan.”  Students can pray on campus—on their own or in groups.  Students can bring Bibles to campus and reference them in assignments (if it’s relevant to the subject matter being taught).  And if a public school or college allows students to form clubs on campus, students can form religious clubs and receive all the same resources provided to non-religious student clubs.

Students May Share their Faith in Public Schools

Of course, many students will want to share their faith with their classmates.  Whether in class or among friends, students do not need to suppress their religious viewpoints, and school administrators cannot tell them to do so.  In fact, the Constitution protects students’ rights to pass out religious flyers and materials.  This is especially true if schools already permit students to hand out non-religious materials.

Religious Freedom in Schools is Under Attack

Religious freedom is alive and well in public schools and universities, but that’s not to say it isn’t under attack.  In recent years, public schools have adopted vague and overly restrictive anti-bullying and diversity policies.  The problem is that these policies give school administrators virtually unrestrained discretion to decide what constitutes “bullying,” and all too often they define “bullying” as sharing the Gospel.  Many public schools also have adopted policies prohibiting religious flyers or proselytizing.  The thinking is that these activities violate the so-called “separation of church and state.”  But as we said above, the First Amendment protects students who want to share their faith on campus.  Finally, public schools are increasingly censoring religious student speech and prayers at football games, graduations, and other activities.  But so long as school administrators are not telling students what to say or how to pray, students speak as private individuals and may do so freely.

You would hope that public universities, the quintessential “marketplaces of ideas,” would prove to be better examples of protecting religious liberty on campus, but they are not.  Like their public school siblings, public universities nationwide use vague speech codes to punish religious students who hold views or opinions that are outside the secular campus mainstream.  These universities also try to limit student speech to “speech zones”—typically, small areas of campus where students may engage in speech, but which prevent students from sharing their faith elsewhere.  And many public universities put special restrictions on religious student organizations—telling them they cannot select leaders based on religious beliefs, or they cannot access mandatory student fees if they pray or worship.  All of these policies discriminate against students of faith and are unconstitutional.

There is Help Available

Students should not think that when they return to campus this year they must leave their faith at home.  The Supreme Court said long ago that students do not shed their constitutional rights when they enter the schoolhouse gates.  Students may share their faith freely and boldly on campus.  But if they experience any of these threats to religious liberty on campus, they should contact Alliance Defending Freedom for free help.

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By Matthew Sharp

Imagine that one day you receive a notice from your child’s school that a weapon or ammunition had been found on campus. Your mind would immediately turn to the frightening stories from places such as Sandy Hook Elementary or Columbine High School where innocent children were targeted by ruthless killers.

That is what one New Hampshire parent faced when she learned that bullets had been found in a restroom at Concord High School where her two children attended school. But as a devout Christian, Lizarda Urena knew that the best course of action she could take to help protect her children and all of the students and staff at the high school was to pray. And that is exactly what she did.

After obtaining permission from the school principal, Ms. Urena began going to the campus each morning about 45 minutes before school starts (and before most students had even arrived) to pray. In an isolated area of the campus, she would spend 15 minutes quietly praying for everyone’s safety. She never imposed her beliefs on anyone passing by, nor did she create any disturbance.

But when the Freedom from Religion Foundation learned of Ms. Urena’s prayers, they sent a letter to the school district demanding that Ms. Urena be prohibited from ever praying at the high school again. And unfortunately, the school caved in to these unreasonable demands.

Are the prayers of caring parents and community members banned from schools? Absolutely not. Praying for divine guidance and blessings is one of the great American traditions. Our Founding Fathers prayed that God would “look down in mercy…on these our American states” as they undertook the task of declaring independence and forming a new nation. Since then, our Presidents have consistently prayed “may God Bless America” in their public speeches and Congress has opened its sessions with prayer. Indeed, courts have repeatedly upheld activities such as See You at the Pole and the National Day of Prayer where students, parents, and community members gather to invoke God’s blessings and protections over their schools and communities.

As our students head back to school, your church has a variety of ways that it can continue this important tradition and cover the students, teachers, and schools in your community with prayer for the coming year:

1.     Encourage the students, parents, and community members in your congregation to participate in See You At The Pole, scheduled for Wednesday, September 25th, at your local schools.

2.     Support the faith-based student clubs at your local schools. Co-sponsor events with them or donate needed items to support the activities and mission of the clubs.

3.     Select a local school for your church to support. Contact the school’s principal and offer to donate school supplies to students in need. Have the members of your congregation send notes of thanks and encouragement to the teachers at the school. And pray for the school and its staff and students during your worship services.

Alliance Defending Freedom is working tirelessly to defend the right of Lizarda Urena and parents, pastors, and community members throughout the country to pray. But that right is meaningless if we as people of faith don’t exercise it regularly. So in the words of Paul, “pray without ceasing” for your students, teachers, and schools.

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by Nathan A. Cherry, The Family Policy Council of West Virginia

The Bible wisely warns, “To him that knows to do good, and does it not, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17).  This message compels us to do the things we know to be right regardless of the consequences. And this message directly applies to our current socio-political circumstances. Christians are called to be faithful preachers of God’s word, and as such, must seek to preach the “whole counsel of God.” Unfortunately, many think it is OK to skip over the parts about the sanctity of life and marriage that some might find controversial. If we truly believe the Bible is God’s word, we should not omit any part simply because society finds it offensive. The Gospel is offensive because it declares there is only one way to Heaven, which is through Christ and by faith. Will we stop preaching this to avoid offending someone? No. As Christians, we have a responsibility to stand for truth, not just in church, but as we go about our daily activities interacting with others. Pastors have an even greater responsibility to do this since they have been entrusted with the souls of their congregation.

Jesus was once asked, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) This is a pertinent question that demands not just an answer, but action. To be clear, our neighbor is not just our family or friends or those we go to church with each Sunday. Rather, our neighbor is also the woman who just had an abortion and who must hear that Jesus is capable of forgiving and healing her.  Our neighbor is the co-habiting couple down the street that needs to hear that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman. Our neighbor is the also the homosexual couple who adopted a child without grasping that children need a mother and a father.

Without a doubt, these people must be treated with dignity or respect, even if their actions contradict our Christian beliefs.  But we must love them enough to share God’s truth—even if this means offending them.  We have a moral duty to share Biblical truth with family, friends, neighbors and even acquaintances.  For pastors, this means that Sunday is the perfect opportunity to speak truth to those gathered in the house of God.

If you have received God’s grace and know the truth, you now have an obligation to speak it. You cannot ignore truth and still have a clear conscience. The good news is that when we do what God is calling us to do, He will honor our efforts. This does not mean that every person is going to agree and love us. Some people will get mad and be offended by our professions of faith. But just as Jesus stood up for Stephen as he was being stoned to death, so too will Jesus stand up for those who do right.

Don’t live out your faith in silence while your neighbors continue to live sinful lifestyles. There is nothing loving about letting people live in sin without telling them there is freedom in Jesus. You know what is right, now you must be willing to proclaim God’s truth.

Russell Moore recently said that Christians:

“need to start seeing the fact that we’re very similar to the way the Christian church was at the very beginning of its existence — a minority of people who are speaking to the larger culture in ways that are going to sometimes seem freakish to that larger culture. I don’t think that’s anything that should panic us or cause us to become outraged or despondent. I think it’s a realistic view of who we are.”

Our views will seem “freakish” to a lost culture that is becoming increasingly hostile towards Christians. But that still does not justify remaining silent. Let us never forget that America’s Christians and pastors need to stand boldly for truth regardless of the consequences.

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by Nathan A. Cherry, The Family Policy Council of West Virginia

Pastors, your church needs you to be engaged—fully engaged—in the issues people are facing every day. Maybe you are not personally facing these issues, but they might be. If congregants come to you for help and advice and all you say is, “Sorry to hear about this,” then you’ve failed them.

Elaine Hugenin, owner of Elane Photography, chose not to photograph a same-sex ceremony. Her religious convictions prevent her from using her talents to celebrate same-sex unions. When she declined to photograph the ceremony, the same-sex couple, ignoring Elaine’s right to freely exercise her faith, brought a case against Elane Photography and the New Mexico Supreme Court unjustly found her guilty of discrimination, even though the same-sex couple easily found and used another photographer to capture the ceremony.

I can’t help but wonder what counsel her pastor provided, if any?

In a similar situation, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington State declined to offer her floral services for a homosexual couple’s same-sex “marriage” ceremony. The state attorney general has filed a lawsuit against the flower company. Barronelle Stutzman believes her Christian convictions prevent her from supporting the same-sex “marriage” and does not want to violate her convictions. She is still being sued, even though dozens of flower shops can provide flowers for their ceremony.

What insights did her pastor offer during this troubling time?

When the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop said he would rather close his business than violate his religious convictions by baking a cake for a same-sex ceremony, he was sued for discrimination. He is doing his best to stand firm and adhere to his faith but he is being attacked by locals within the community and the media. The same-sex couple, along with the ACLU, have filed a suit against Masterpiece Cakeshop, even though other bakeries could provide a cake for the ceremony.

What words of wisdom did his pastor offer during his hour of need?

Pastors often talk about controversial issues in a detached manner saying they are outside of the church and her scope. But these are real Christians—members of real churches—whose livelihoods, reputations, and lives are being attacked in a very public way. These issues are not outside the church, but within, and must be addressed so that these Christians can live their faith fully and carry their cross with the strength and support their church provides.

Pastors, congregants need you to be informed, engaged, and buttressed by your support and wisdom. If all you offer them during a difficult time is an obscure Bible verse, you might appear indifferent and uncaring. A shepherd needs to care for the needs of his flock, especially when their livelihood is at stake because of their Christian beliefs.

Pastors must be a solid rock for Christians during trying times when they are being assailed by our enemies.  They must be a counselor, friend, and inspirational resource. Make sure congregants know that they can come to you and count on your support. Here are two ways you can show your congregation your support during difficult times.

1.     Skip the rhetoric. Don’t recite sermons, prepared statements, or doxologies from books. Be a real friend, one who cries with them (Rom. 12:15), and is willing to walk by their side through this valley of darkness. I love sermons, Proverbs, Psalm and great quotes from men of God, but sometimes people just need a shoulder to cry on. Be that shoulder.

2.     Become a resource. (Ecc. 4:12) When a person’s character is being assaulted publicly and their livelihood is threatened, inspiring words only go so far. Become a resource for people in your congregation by making sure you are up-to-date on their situation, aware of laws and people and organizations that can help. Familiarize yourself with groups like Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, and your local state family policy council that can provide legal and public policy resources.

Difficult times are opportunities for pastors to minister to the needs of their congregants. You will only be able to minister effectively if you are prepared. As ministers of the Gospel, we should endeavor to be “instant in season and out” (2 Tim. 4:2). When people need us, let’s be ready with God’s Word and the necessary resources to stand with those God has entrusted to our care.

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One of the first questions we are usually asked by pastors whose states have redefined marriage and adopted same-sex “marriage” is whether they will be required to allow use of their church buildings for same-sex “wedding” ceremonies.  This is not an unreasonable question considering that at least one city has considered forcing churches to allow use of their buildings for same-sex “weddings.”  But the very simple answer to that question is an unequivocal “no.”  Churches do not have to allow use of their facilities in ways that are inconsistent with their biblical beliefs.

Church buildings are private property and are used primarily for the exercise of religion.  As such, the use of church buildings is cloaked with First Amendment protection both under the Free Exercise Clause and the Free Speech Clause.  If the government attempts to force a church to use its private property in ways that are inconsistent with its religious beliefs, the government would violate the church’s First Amendment rights.

Put simply, a church has a right to only allow uses of its facilities that are consistent with its religious beliefs and to deny all other uses.  No church should ever feel compelled to open its buildings for use in a same-sex “wedding” ceremony.

The best way to protect your church is to adopt a facility usage policy that outlines the religious nature of the church buildings and restricts usage of the facility to uses that are consistent with the church’s biblical beliefs.  It is always best to adopt a policy governing the use of the facility because a policy is powerful evidence of the church’s beliefs and practice regarding use of its buildings. And if your church adopts a policy, it should follow that policy consistently.

Alliance Defending Freedom has prepared a sample facilities usage policy for churches. This policy is crafted to allow churches to make the decision as to what uses they will allow and to ensure that the church has the ability to approve uses consistent with its biblical beliefs and to deny all other requests to use the church buildings. Download the policy today and consider having your church adopt it.

And if your church is ever told that it must allow use of its facilities for something that is inconsistent with the church’s beliefs, contact our attorneys to review the facts. We want to ensure that the church remains free to minister through its church buildings in ways that are consistent with its religious faith.

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