Getting away with public endorsement of religion

John recently wrote about Ron Brown, an assistant football coach at the University of Nebraska who ruffled feathers recently when he testified against a non-discrimination ordinance which extended protections to gay and transgender people. And his reply to those who ask him if he’s worried about losing his job? Bring it on:

To be fired for my faith would be a greater honor than to be fired because we didn’t win enough games…I haven’t lost any sleep over it.

But calls for Brown’s resignation do not stem from his comments alone. Many who wish to see Brown go take issue him making his comments while acting as an agent of the University of Nebraska (which has a non-discrimination policy that includes protections for sexual orientation, gender and genetic information), not as an individual. From ESPN:

Brown — in a decision he said he now regrets — gave Memorial Stadium in Lincoln as his address of record…people could have inferred he was representing the university, not just himself, when he [testified].

Despite Brown’s misuse of his public status, it appears that his job is, at least for now, safe:

Chancellor Harvey Perlman admonished Brown for giving the stadium address, but he said Brown’s personal views do not reflect those of the university.

Ron Brown is only the most recent example of religious individuals working for public institutions claiming the right to endorse religious beliefs on behalf of the taxpayer. A few years ago, the issue was put in the spotlight just down the road from Kenyon College.

John Freshwater was an 8th grade science teacher at the local middle school in Mt. Vernon, Ohio. He was a local hero in the religious community for keeping a Bible on his desk and religious posters in his classroom, as well as making statements such as these in the classroom:

Science is wrong because the Bible states that homosexuality is a sin, and so anyone who is gay chooses to be gay and is therefore a sinner.

Freshwater was also reported to have told students to refer to the Bible for scientific research material and to have either ignored or intentionally mis-taught certain areas of the school’s curriculum for years, particularly the section on evolution. But those actions were not deemed sufficient cause for his dismissal from the public school system. He was finally fired only after accidentally burning what appear to be crosses into the arms of two students with a tesla coil in a lab experiment.

Both Mr. Freshwater and Mr. Brown are entitled to their homophobic and anti-scientific beliefs as individuals. But when they leave their homes, churches and weekend communities to go to work they are no longer acting as individuals; they are acting as agents of the government they work for. For public institutions to allow their own employees to endorse religious beliefs – let alone bigoted ones – on the taxpayer’s dime represents a dangerous and illegal encroachment of religious ideology that must be pushed back against.

Ron Brown violated the University of Nebraska’s non-discrimination policy when he testified under his capacity as a representative of the school. It’s shameful that he has yet to be held accountable for his actions.


Jon Green is a graduate of Kenyon College with a degree in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. A veteran of the campaigns of Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and President Obama in 2012, he writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @JonGreen8, and on Google+. .

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