ACLJ Files Federal Lawsuit Against Smithsonian Museum for Accosting, Berating, and Kicking Out Christian Students for Their Pro-Life Hats
The ACLJ has just filed a major lawsuit against the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum for the outrageous violation of the First Amendment when it kicked out a group of Christian students for wearing pro-life hats.
We are representing nine students and three parents who were unlawfully targeted for their religious pro-life views by at least five museum staff members and security officers of the Smithsonian on the afternoon of the March for Life. We have just filed a complaint in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia.
As we have previously explained:
[S]tudents from a Catholic school in Greenville, South Carolina, traveled to Washington, D.C., to participate in the National March for Life. After the event, they went over to explore the nearby Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. Once in the [federal] museum, they were accosted several times and told they would be forced to leave unless they removed their pro-life hats. The group all wore the same blue hat that simply said, “Rosary PRO-LIFE.” Other individuals in the museum were wearing hats of all kinds without issue.
The museum staff mocked the students, called them expletives, and made comments that the museum was a “neutral zone” where they could not express such statements. The employee who ultimately forced the students to leave the museum was rubbing his hands together in glee as they exited the building. We here at the ACLJ are absolutely appalled at this blatant discrimination and won’t let this behavior stand.
In our complaint, we provide more detail of how upwards of five museum staff and security officers accosted, berated, and eventually kicked out these students.
When our clients initially entered the museum, they were told by at least two security officers to remove their hats as they were going through security. They complied, believing this to be a simple security protocol for screening. After passing through security and seeing other individuals wearing expressive attire, the students put their hats back on and viewed the museum exhibits. Thereafter, multiple museum personnel told the students they must remove their hats. Staff could be heard using expletives about the students, many of whom were minors, including, “The f****** pro-life. What a bunch of s***.”
Museum security again confronted the students, demanding, “’You’ve been told multiple times to take your hats off, and you have not taken them off. You need to take them off or leave.’” Museum personnel claimed the pro-life “hats were ‘political statements.’” One staff member told one of our clients, “‘You need to take off your hats. We are a museum that promotes equality, and your hats do not promote equality.’” He was “yelling” as he “approached the students and had a big grin on his face and was rubbing his hands together as he said, ‘Y’all are about to make my day. . . . You’ve been told multiple times to take your hats off, and you have not taken them off. You need to take them off or leave.’” He then instructed our clients that “the museum was a ‘neutral zone,’ and that the First Amendment ‘does not apply here.’”
It is clear that these Christian students were kicked out of the museum solely because of their pro-life and religious views. And the First Amendment DOES apply in a federal institution such as the Smithsonian.
What the Smithsonian did is beyond reprehensible. 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. It’s not only abhorrent; it’s blatantly unconstitutional. And that’s why we’re fighting back.
Our lawsuit brings claims under the First Amendment (free speech), Fifth Amendment (equal protection), and Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Our lawsuit makes crystal clear:
Defendants [the museum and staff] unlawfully deprived Plaintiffs [the students] of their First Amendment rights to engage in protected speech and expression in violation of the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.
Defendants’ restriction on Plaintiffs’ speech is content and viewpoint-based and demonstrates a concerted effort to single out, embarrass, intimidate, exclude, and ultimately silence the message expressed by Plaintiffs in wearing their “Rosary Pro-Life” hats. . . .
Defendants unlawfully deprived Plaintiffs of their Fifth Amendment rights by preventing Plaintiffs from enjoying the museum and silencing Plaintiffs to prevent them from expressing a message based on content and viewpoint, because Defendants found their views unacceptable. . . .
Defendants’ restriction on Plaintiffs’ expressive religious activity as set forth in this Complaint imposes a substantial burden on Plaintiffs’ religious exercise in violation of RFRA.
We are asking the court to order the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to ensure that this type of invidious, unconstitutional discrimination against pro-life free speech never happens again. We specifically ask the court to:
A. Declare Defendants’ actions violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution;
B. Declare Defendants’ actions violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution;
C. Declare Defendants’ actions violated Plaintiffs’ rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act;
D. Issue an injunction enjoining Defendants, and all those in active concert with them, from unlawfully targeting Plaintiffs, for disparate treatment and particular scrutiny based on content and viewpoint or association; . . .
F. Order Defendants to conduct appropriate training of employees, subject to the Court’s approval, such that Defendants’ employees’ conduct complies with federal law and the United States Constitution; . . . .
We have already heard from more individuals who were forced to cover up pro-life T-shirts or be forced to leave another federal museum that same day. This is not some isolated incident. We are seeing a pattern of unconscionable behavior and attacks on pro-life students across the federal government. This must end. We will continue fighting in court to ensure the rights of our clients are vindicated and those responsible for these actions are held accountable.
If you have faced unconstitutional discrimination for your pro-life views, we’re here to help. Contact us at ACLJ.org/HELP.