Here Clarion presents the third article in our series examining the forces behind and implications of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the free speech case with potentially serious ramifications for unions that is currently before the Supreme Court of the United States. At issue is the underpinning of public-sector unionism – that public employees who opt out of union membership can still be obligated to pay for their individual share of the services and collective bargaining they receive from the union. This has been considered settled law since the 1977 Supreme Court decision in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, but the present conservative majority on the Court could decide to overturn Abood, either wholly or in part, depending on its decision in Friedrichs. For public-sector unions such as the PSC, the consequences could be profound.
Tucked away in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit purportedly about unions and free speech, lies another, real First Amendment concern: the separation of church and state. The lead plaintiff in the case is Rebecca Friedrichs, a teacher in the Savanna School District; she is joined in the suit by nine additional individuals, and one organization: the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI), which bills itself as an alternative to the “secular” teachers’ unions, and maintains that the Constitution does not bar teachers from imparting their Christian faith in their classrooms.
“Many public school educators believe that they must make their schools God-less under the banner of ‘separation of church and state,’” CEAI’s executive director, Finn Laursen, has written, “to the extent that an environment is created that is hostile to religion.”
The teachers’ unions, Laursen maintains, “have such control that student needs become secondary” to those of the union. In that “hostile” public-school environment, according to Laursen, “the sin nature [sic] of mankind is accepted and even promoted.” There are “forces are at work,” he writes, that aim to “control the minds of our children by systematically promoting such things as sexual orientation being genetically driven and same sex marriage being acceptable under the banner of tolerance.”
Missionaries in Public Schools
The CEAI considers the public schools to be a setting ripe for proselytizing, and its members the foot soldiers in a battle for the students’ minds — and souls. “There are over 50 million students in our public schools, 70 million parents, three and half million teachers,” Laursen said in a 2007 video, “Christian Teacher Core Values.” That represents nearly 124 million people, he added, “many of them spiritually and morally bankrupt. We know the truth, and we need to send our missionaries into that area.”
In CEAI’s brief in support of its petition for Supreme Court review of the Friedrichs case, which the Court granted in June, there is no mention of the organization’s positions on church-state separation, secularism, or its conservative Christian beliefs. But in materials disseminated through its website, in media interviews, and at its events, CEAI makes clear that it aims to help teachers skirt the Constitution by claiming that their right to free religious expression is thwarted by the separation of church and state. Under the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the government, including public schools, cannot endorse or appear to endorse a particular religion. CEAI officials have claimed that this principle is not in the Constitution; in fact, one has called the assertion of constitutional church-state separation “a lie.”
Laursen declined to be interviewed for this article.
Anti-labor Christian Groups
Founded in 1953 in California as the Fellowship of Christian Educators, CEAI now presents itself as an alternative to the National Education Association (NEA), which it claims promotes secular, liberal political positions that conflict with Christian values. The association currently has chapters in 20 states; its website says its mission is “to encourage, equip, and empower educators according to biblical principles.”
The history of evangelical involvement in anti-union activity dates back at least to the 1930s, said Baruch College history professor Clarence Taylor, in an interview with Clarion. At the time, many conservative evangelicals viewed unions as part of a supposed communist threat, and business-allied leaders, such as James Fifield and Abraham Vereide, organized events to evangelize against the New Deal. (Vereide convened prayer breakfasts for business elites and Fifield founded the Spiritual Mobilization movement.) The fear of unions intensified in evangelical circles during the Cold War and amid the backlash against movements for racial equality and women’s rights. In 1979, the Moral Majority was founded, and played a significant role in electing Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
“When looking at that long history, clearly by the 1970s, the Christian right decided to get involved in politics,” said Taylor, “they particularly targeted unions because they saw them as strong opposition to their agenda,” which includes officially sanctioned prayer in public schools. Ken Estey, associate professor of political science at Brooklyn College, cautions that not all evangelicals hew to an anti-union line. While it’s true that “for a lot of people in the further-right, labor unions are just a step away from communism,” many evangelicals not only support but belong to labor unions, he said. A monolithic view of their position on unions, said Estey, “doesn’t capture the complexity in American evangelicalism, especially on the social justice side.”
Collective Bargaining Targeted
The legal claims in Friedrichs rest on the assertion that paying agency fees (also described by unions as “fair share” fees) to the California Teachers Association violates the plaintiffs’ free speech rights because of their disagreements with CTA’s political positions. But agency-fee payers — teachers who have opted out of union membership, and are consequently mandated only to pay for their share of services the union provides on their behalf, such as collective bargaining — are not required to pay for the union’s political activities.
CEAI, however, argues in Friedrichs that it and its members – 600, it says, in California, including six of the individual plaintiffs in Friedrichs — are “fundamentally opposed to many of the positions taken by teachers’ unions, both within the collective bargaining process and outside of that process,” and frames the collective bargaining process as an expression of politics in and of itself, and therefore a violation of the freedom of association guaranteed under the First Amendment.
In a section of its website devoted to warning prospective members of the National Education Association’s “liberal political stance,” CEAI notes, “You may also be surprised at what you find as you compare your Christian beliefs with the agendas of the NEA and realize your membership dollars makes [sic] the NEA’s agenda possible.”
Furthermore, CEAI maintains, California’s agency shop laws have the “effect of creating a drain on CEAI’s resources.” According to Laursen’s affidavit filed in the case, the “scheme operated by” the teachers’ union causes CEAI to spend money counseling its members on how they can opt out of union fees based on religious objections, rather than spending money on other services for its members.
Those services include providing backing to CEAI’s member teachers when their school districts censure them for crossing that church-state separation line.
The CEAI, Laursen has said, is “here to encourage, equip, and empower Christian educators in our public schools...to become transformational agents.” The organization will, according to its website, offer members “prayer support,” “guidance on establishing prayer groups in your building,” and connections with “ministries that equip you to be an effective witness for Jesus our Lord in your school or district.”
Case of the Creationist Science Teacher
CEAI often takes positions that are in conflict with prevailing law on the major church-state separation issues in the public schools. In 2006, after a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled the teaching of intelligent design unconstitutional in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, Laursen insisted that teachers be permitted to teach “the controversy,” terminology creationists use to portray the teaching of creationism as simply another viewpoint. (One of the benefits of CEAI membership is discounted tickets to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky.)
But while CEAI has pressed this agenda to its members, its efforts to test them in the legal system have largely met with failure. CEAI’s forays into the legal system, apart from the Friedrichs case, have involved what it has framed as the defense of teachers expressing their faith in the classroom. Their attempts have been routinely rejected by the courts as violations of the Establishment Clause.
In 2010, Laursen served as an expert witness in hearings reviewing the termination of John Freshwater, a middle school science teacher in Mount Vernon, Ohio, who was fired in 2008 for refusing to follow school district directives to remove displays of religious texts and the Ten Commandments from his classroom. Freshwater’s troubles began in 2007 when a student sued the school district, alleging that the veteran teacher had burned a cross into the student’s arm with a Tesla coil. The school district settled the case with the student out of court.
In CEAI’s Teachers of Vision Magazine, Laursen recounted his testimony at Freshwater’s administrative proceedings challenging the teacher’s dismissal. “I invested over two hours clarifying the religious freedoms teachers have in our public schools that were relevant in Mr. Freshwater’s case,” Laursen wrote. “All the pieces of the testimony lined up with the key issues of the case and the peace of the Lord could be felt during the process.”
‘A Hero of the Faith’
When Freshwater filed a separate federal case against the school district, claiming that its actions violated his First Amendment right to his free exercise of religion, Laursen said in a statement that he was “happy to serve someone of such high moral character as John Freshwater as a member of CEAI. John is proving to be a hero of the faith.”
Although Freshwater ended up dropping his First Amendment case against the district, his appeal of his termination went all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, which ruled in his employer’s favor in 2013. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion that Freshwater “not only ignored the school district’s directive, he defied it.” He did not have a Free Exercise right to display those items in his classroom, she added, “because they were not a part of his exercise of his religion. Freshwater’s willful disobedience of these direct orders demonstrates blatant insubordination.” The US Supreme Court denied review of the case in 2014.
CEAI also sought to intervene in a case in the Santa Rosa School District in Florida, where, in 2009, the school district had settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, charging numerous violations of the Establishment Clause. The school district’s conduct was “over the top,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, citing, for example, the high school teacher handbook, which required school personnel to “embrace every opportunity to inculcate, by precept and example, the practice of every Christian virtue.” Mach said that teachers and coaches regularly led students in prayer, and some teachers “were effectively teaching Sunday school lessons in public school classes” and “proselytizing students, sometimes with a bullhorn.”
Kim Davis’s Attorneys
The school district admitted liability and agreed to a comprehensive settlement, after which CEAI, represented by Liberty Counsel – the same religious-right law firm that represented the Kentucky clerk Kim Davis in her quest to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples – sought to intervene in an effort to vacate the consent decree. “They invented these fanciful readings of the consent decree,” said Mach, including concerns that it would prevent teachers from saying, “God bless you” if someone sneezed, or in the case of one CEAI member, from praying quietly in the stands if her grandson, who attended school in the district, was injured in a wrestling match.
The court ruled their fears “objectively unreasonable,” a “strained interpretation of the decree,” and denied CEAI’s motion to intervene. The CEAI later brought its own lawsuit, which resulted, in 2011, in only minor clarifications of the consent decree, such as spelling out that saying “God bless you” does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Although it is not apparent from reading CEAI’s Supreme Court brief, if the Friedrichs plaintiffs are successful, the ripple effect of their efforts could do more than undermine unions: It could open another chapter in the war over religion in public schools, emboldening groups such as CEAI to intensify efforts to allow public school teachers to endorse and promote religion with their students once their best-organized opponents — the teachers’ unions — are weakened.
Sarah Posner is a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches and an investigative journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The American Prospect, The Nation and many other publications.