The Catholic students and chaperones who said they were kicked out of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum over their pro-life beanies have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the institute of violating their First Amendment rights.
The American Center for Law & Justice sued on behalf of nine students and three parents from the Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, South Carolina, saying they were told during a Jan. 20 visit to remove their matching blue beanies with the message “Rosary PRO-LIFE” or leave.
“What the Smithsonian did is beyond reprehensible,” ACLJ Executive Director Jordan Sekulow said in a statement Tuesday. “These were students simply wearing a hat that passively expressed their support for life on the basis of their Christian faith. The way these students, many of whom were minors, were treated by their federal government — the Smithsonian and its employees — should shock everyone to the core.”
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia also accused the Smithsonian of violating the constitutional equal protection clause and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Smithsonian spokeswoman Alison Wood apologized last week after museum staff confronted the students and chaperones, who toured the museum as part of a school trip to the District for the 50th annual March for Life.
“Asking visitors to remove hats and clothing is not in keeping with our policy or protocols,” Ms. Wood said in a statement. “We provided immediate retraining that day to prevent a reoccurrence of this kind of error.”
SEE ALSO: Republicans blast Smithsonian for kicking out Catholic students over ‘pro-life’ beanies
She acknowledged that “a security officer mistakenly told young visitors that their pro-life hats were not permitted in the museum.”
She added, “Smithsonian welcomes all visitors without regard to their beliefs. We do not deny access to our museums based on the messages on visitors’ clothing.”
The complaint said the staff also mocked and used profanity to refer to the pro-life group. The students were told to remove their beanies even though other visitors wore clothing with messages, including one who had on a PRIDE face mask.
“You need to take off your hats,” one staffer allegedly said. “We are a museum that promotes equality, and your hats do not promote equality.”
Congressional Republicans also demanded answers, asking Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III in a letter Monday whether the institute has taken any disciplinary action against the employees involved.
“We are deeply concerned about this unjust expulsion of young Americans from museums — subsidized with taxpayer dollars — for wearing apparel that your staff disagreed with,” the letter from 40 House and Senate Republicans said.
“As members of Congress, we are unaware of any laws, rules or regulations prohibiting members of the public from wearing pro-life hats inside Smithsonian office buildings,” the letter said. “As a federal entity and the recipient of more than $1 billion in federal funds every year, there should be no debate as to whether the First Amendment applies to the Smithsonian.”
Senators included in the letter were Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, both of South Carolina. A response was requested by Feb. 16.
Student Patrick Murphy said the group was accosted by “two women in all black, presumably security guards,” then and by another staffer described as a “large man.”
“He comes up to us rubbing his hands together, saying, ‘Y’all are about to make my day’ with a massive smile on his face,” the teen said in a Feb. 2 interview on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity.” “He tells us he’s got reports saying we said ‘no’ to taking our hats off, and we’re in trouble for some odd reason.”
The students told him they were wearing the beanies to identify members of their group, but “he wasn’t having it.”
“I then said, ‘This is a violation of our First Amendment right, this is a government-funded building,’” Patrick said. “How are we paying for this with our taxes and I’m not allowed to wear this hat?”
Patrick, a plaintiff in the ACLJ lawsuit, said the man told them the museum was a “neutral zone.”
“He said it’s a neutral zone and that doesn’t apply here,” Patrick said. “We were blown away. We had almost no words.”