- - Wednesday, January 22, 2020

If you’re into comeback stories, you’ll love Chase Windebank’s.

Just a few short years ago, Chase had to go to court against his high school just to host a student-led prayer group during a free time in the school day. Last Thursday, Chase was in the Oval Office with Donald Trump as the president took action to assure that the freedom Chase had to ask a court to reaffirm applies to every public school student in the nation.

That’s the good news about the president’s suite of regulatory changes and guidance — rolled out on National Religious Freedom Day — all aimed at ensuring that religious freedom remains protected across the nation. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Chase, the president announced updated guidelines on prayer and religious expression that every public school must certify compliance with. These ensure that students’ First Amendment rights don’t vanish when they set foot on school property.

Ready for more good news? The administrative actions didn’t stop with speech and religious exercise on public school campuses. The significant, newly proposed rules involved several federal agencies, sending each the message that federal and state agencies — as well as schools and other groups receiving federal taxpayer dollars — must all respect the First Amendment.

This is an important step forward in protecting the freedom of all Americans to live and work according to their faith. The government has a constitutional duty to treat religious people and organizations equally, but as in Chase’s situation, the government can often fail to keep to its end of the bargain.

Citing the misguided notion of “separation of church and state” — a concept found nowhere in the U.S. Constitution and often misconstrued to keep religion out of the government rather than vice-versa — state and federal officials have often treated people of faith as second-class citizens.

In Missouri, for example, the state rejected a religious preschool from a program that provided reimbursement grants to purchase tire scraps used to make children’s playgrounds safer. Out of the 44 nonprofits that applied for the playground surface grant, the school Trinity Lutheran was ranked fifth in meeting the qualifications. But the preschool was denied solely because it is run by a church.

A skinned knee hurts just as much on the playground of a religious school as it does on the playground of a secular school, but the state of Missouri wouldn’t budge from its position.

That led to a challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer, which I and my colleagues at Alliance Defending Freedom litigated. By a 7-2 majority, the court ruled in Trinity Lutheran’s favor. The decision affirmed that a state cannot deny “a qualified religious entity a public benefit solely because of its religious character” and rightly said that such discrimination is “odious to our Constitution … and cannot stand.”

As with Chase’s victory — also won by ADF — victories like these are far more than a moment in time. They impact people for years, decades and generations to come. President Trump’s statement on Religious Freedom Day builds on victories like these and paves the way for freedom to continue to prevail.

Freedom is for everyone, not just those who agree with the government. And the administration’s actions last Thursday come in a context where robust First Amendment freedoms of speech and religious exercise are also winning in courts.

Over the past year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit and the Arizona Supreme Court have also upheld the right of creative professionals to live and work according to their faith. And in the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision, the U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that government hostility toward people of faith has no place in our society. ADF also represents Barronelle Stutzman, whose win at the U.S. Supreme Court would bolster those freedoms for all Americans.

Freedom is never a given; it’s contested in every generation. We all play a role in ensuring future generations enjoy their God-given right to speak freely and live consistent with their deeply held convictions, and we can all be grateful for Mr. Trump’s timely reminder and decisive action.

No doubt Chase’s comeback story is worth telling. And so is the revitalization of religious liberty and free speech in a nation established at the headwaters of those two freedoms.

• Kristen Waggoner is general counsel and senior vice president of U.S. legal division and communications at Alliance Defending Freedom. Follow her on Twitter @KWaggonerADF and follow Alliance Defending Freedom @AllianceDefends.

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