Before coming to Congress, Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) spent years taking up lawsuits in defense of Christian speech and activities in public elementary schools and universities.
Johnson, who was a relatively unknown Louisiana congressman before being elected House speaker last month, previously spent eight years as senior attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, an evangelical legal group focused on dismantling LGBTQ+ rights and outlawing abortion. It was in his role there that Johnson, a constitutional lawyer, took up case after case aimed at chipping away at the separation of church and state.
What’s alarming about this pattern in his background is that it raises questions about whether the House speaker ― the person second in line to the U.S. presidency ― disputes the first freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment in the Constitution: ”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
In 2004, Johnson was the lead attorney for Stockwell Place Elementary when the Bossier Parish public school got sued for pushing Christianity on its students.
A set of Jewish parents sued the school after learning it was holding prayer sessions, teaching Christian songs in class and promoting a teacher-led prayer group called Stallions for Christ that met during recess. The Jewish parents, who had two children at the school, also cited a teacher with a Christian cross on the classroom door, a Nativity scene in the school library and a graduation program featuring Christian songs and a student-led prayer, and religious speeches delivered by two local sheriff’s deputies.
In their lawsuit, which you can read here, the parents claim their children were ridiculed and bullied by other kids for not participating in the religious songs. They raised concerns with the principal, who allegedly responded by defending the school’s Nativity scene and religious songs, and told the parents to “deal with it.” The parents also complained to the school superintendent, who allegedly defended the teacher-led prayer group because “this is the way things are done in the South” and “welcome to the Bible Belt.”
Johnson spoke about the lawsuit at his church, the Airline Drive Church of Christ in Shreveport, before taking on the case. He warned the congregation what was at stake with cases like the Jewish family suing to keep Christian activities out of a public school.
“The ultimate goal of the enemy is silencing the gospel,” said Johnson, according to an April 2004 story in the Shreveport Times about the lawsuit. “This is spiritual warfare.”
Here’s the article in the the Shreveport Times from April 2004:
The Louisiana Republican also told church attendees, some of whom were reportedly nodding and wearing “I support Stockwell Place” T-shirts, that “if we don’t (win), they’re going to shut down all private religion expression.”
Johnson’s comments at church came a week after he wrote an opinion piece in the Shreveport Times calling the Jewish family’s lawsuit “the latest example of the radical left’s desperate efforts to silence all public expression of religious faith.”
Here’s Johnson’s article:
Johnson spokesperson Taylor Haulsee on Tuesday disputed that the House speaker was referring to the Jewish family as “the enemy” in the 2004 lawsuit.
“You are mischaracterizing his remark,” he said in a statement. “Johnson was referring to any coordinated attempt to impede religious expression that is protected under the Constitution, not any single family.”
Haulsee also emphasized that the first bill Johnson brought to the House floor as speaker was a resolution condemning Hamas and standing with Israel.
The lawsuit was settled in August 2005 with a consent order clarifying the types of religious expression allowed in public schools. But most of the case had been dismissed months earlier because the family moved out of state.
“On or about December 28, 2004, the McBride family moved to Missouri to escape the harassment and threats Tyler and Kelsey were enduring at Stockwell Place Elementary,” reads a March 2005 amendment to the lawsuit.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which was not officially a party to the case, said at the time that the Jewish family likely would have won their case had they not moved away.
“The ACLU believes (the complaints) were meritorious and had the plaintiffs remained in the state, they would have been found meritorious,” Joe Cook, then the executive director of the ACLU’s Louisiana affiliate, told the Shreveport Times when the case was settled.
In another case in 2006, Johnson represented parents suing the Katy Independent School District in Texas for allegedly trying to ban religious expression and “acknowledgement of the Christian religion.” The parents argued that the school district violated their First Amendment rights by preventing them from “speaking about their religious beliefs” and “distributing religious items or literature to classmates” on school grounds.
This lawsuit was dismissed in 2010 with prejudice, meaning the plaintiffs can’t refile the same claim again in this court. The school did have to pay Johnson’s attorney fees, though.
The House speaker twice represented teenagers, in 2007 and in 2008, who were denied public school transportation to a “Just for Jesus” religious event.
In 2007, Johnson represented a high school student in a civil rights action lawsuit after her school refused to provide a bus for her club, called the One Way Club, to attend a “Just for Jesus” event. The student claimed that the school provided other clubs with transportation for fields trips and that it wasn’t fair to not provide a bus for the religious event. The lawsuit was eventually dismissed because the student found her own ride to the event.
A year later, Johnson represented a middle school student who sued her school for not providing a bus to the same event. This student, who was part of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, claimed that she was denied school transportation to the “Just for Jesus” event because she and others in her club talked about their religious beliefs.
School officials claimed the real issue was safety concerns, because there was a shooting near the “Just for Jesus” event the year before, and some students had been “injured and fearful.” The school officials suggested the organizers of the event hold it during non-school hours or on the weekend. As a compromise, school officials offered to give students excused absences if they went to the event on their own during the school day.
The judge in the case ruled that the school worked in good faith with the student by offering an excused absence and rejected Johnson’s argument that the student demonstrated “a substantial threat of irreparable injury.” The student voluntarily ended her suit shortly afterward.
“It is repugnant to Sonnier that he ... must obtain governmental permission to talk to a student about his Christian faith.”
Johnson also led lawsuits in defense of religious speech on the campuses of public universities. In 2008, he lost a case involving a traveling evangelist who sued Southeastern Louisiana University after a school police officer told him he had to move to a free speech zone on campus to deliver his remarks and get his speech pre-approved.
As they stood there, the evangelist, Jeremy Sonnier, began engaging with a student about religion, at which point the officer warned he would be arrested if he didn’t move.
Sonnier’s legal argument, led by Johnson, was that the university’s speech policy was “unduly burdensome” and based on religious grounds.
“It is repugnant to Sonnier that he, as an individual citizen, must obtain governmental permission to talk to a student about his Christian faith,” reads the legal document, presumably written by Johnson.
A federal judge ultimately dismissed the case with prejudice, meaning Sonnier can’t refile the same claim again in the court.
In another lawsuit in 2003, Johnson represented a student at Texas Tech University who accused the school of violating his First Amendment rights by requiring him to get his speech pre-approved in order to speak on campus in a spot that was not in the “free speech area” gazebo. The student was challenging a school policy that barred students from engaging in speech that might “intimidate” or “humiliate” another person on campus.
The university initially denied a permit to the student to deliver remarks outside of the designated area expressing his religious view that “homosexuality is a sinful, immoral and unhealthy lifestyle,” and passing out literature citing Scripture. But the student was ultimately given permission to do this if he moved across the street.
In 2008, Johnson was the lead attorney for the Tangipahoa Parish school board in Louisiana when it got sued for opening its meetings with prayers and requiring they be delivered by eligible members of the clergy in the parish.
The plaintiff took issue with the school board bringing religion into its meetings at all and with the denial of his wife’s request to give an invocation at a meeting because she was a non-denominational Christian.
“Plaintiff finds equally objectionable the non-secular manner in which the Board meetings are conducted,” reads the plaintiff’s legal filing. “The Board meetings are an integral part of Tangipahoa Parish public school system, requiring the Board to refrain from injecting religion into them. By commencing the meetings with a prayer, the Board is conveying its endorsement of religion.”
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2010 after the parties reached a compromise.
Asked Tuesday if Johnson fundamentally disagrees with the separation of church and state, his office pointed to comments that he made last week on CNBC, when he claimed that Americans “misunderstand” the concept.
“When the Founders set this system up, they wanted a vibrant expression of faith in the public square because they believed that a general moral consensus and virtue was necessary,” Johnson said in the TV interview. “The separation of church and state is a misnomer. People misunderstand it.”
He claimed that Thomas Jefferson meant something entirely different from what we think it means when he coined the phrase.
“What he was explaining is they did not want the government to encroach upon the church, not that they didn’t want principles of faith to have influence on our public life,” Johnson said. “It’s exactly the opposite.”
He never actually said, though, if he disagrees with the separation of church and state.
“An abject danger to our democracy.”
Rachel Laser, the president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said she has “grave concerns” about Johnson’s claims.
“Any public official ― let alone the speaker of the House and second in line to be president ― who claims America is a Christian nation and discredits church-state separation is an abject danger to our democracy,” she said.
Laser said Johnson is “repeating the myth that Christian nationalists typically use” to deny that church-state separation is foundational to democracy.
“Church-state separation is baked into the Constitution, from Article VI’s prohibition on religious tests for public office to the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections. Our freedoms, equality and democracy rest on that wall of separation. Without it, America would not be America.”