*Spoiler Alert: Do not read this if you do not want God’s Not Dead 2 spoiled for you.
I never bothered to see the first God’s Not Dead movie when it came out. It struck me as Christian propaganda. It was meant to warn Christians about the danger of sending their children off to a public university where atheism rules and Christians are the persecuted minority. I knew it wasn’t a movie meant for me, so I ignored it.
I had already graduated from college and I knew the reality. The dozens of Christian-affiliated student groups on campus outnumbered our one secular group, which consisted of between five and fifteen members depending on the year. We had numerous posters and signs torn down and destroyed. My school employed a young earth creationist to teach in its science department (chemistry) and even my biology professor was a Christian; I know because she made sure to tell us. Though she also explained that she was able to reconcile evolution with her Christian faith, lucky us.
Despite my apathy for the original, the first time I saw the trailer for God’s Not Dead 2, I knew that I had to see it; not because I am a secular activist (I am) and not because I have a penchant for mental self-mutilation (I don’t). I wanted to see God’s Not Dead 2 because only by seeing it could I help to clear up some of the legal misconceptions. God’s Not Dead 2, like its predecessor, uses twisted facts, strawmen, and negative atheist stereotypes to create an evangelical fantasyland where Christians are the kind-hearted minority facing persecution from the mean-spirited and atheist-dominated United States of America.
The movie focuses on Grace (Melissa Joan Hart), a good-natured teacher who finds herself in trouble after she mentions Jesus in her history class while discussing the peaceful protest tactics of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It’s clear from the context that she was not trying to proselytize to her students. In the real world that would have been the end of the story, but in this fantasyland she faces serious consequences for her actions. Since she refuses to apologize and not do it again, the school board wants to fire her, but if it does, she will sue them for wrongful termination. Luckily, the school board has worked out a deal with the ACLU where they will only go after Grace and leave the school alone because they have been dreaming of a case like this, and after all, its secret motive is to prove that God is dead. The school board reasons that after the ACLU is able to prove that she violated the law, the school board will be safe to fire her.
FFRF frequently deals with teachers who are proselytizing in schools. A group like FFRF or the ACLU likely wouldn’t even lodge a complaint with a school over this sort of trivial mention of Jesus, let alone file a lawsuit. There are plenty of cases of actual school proselytization to keep them busy. Also, school boards and superintendents are more likely to side with proselytizing teachers than against them. This isn’t that surprising given that many superintendents and school board members are themselves Christian and if a teacher were to be sued for violating the Establishment Clause, the school district would be sued right along with her. FFRF or the ACLU would not even be able to make a deal with the school board to sue only the teacher since the teacher has violated the Establishment Clause on behalf of the school district. What often happens in real life, (when the superintendent realizes that the Constitution has actually been violated) is the teacher is told to stop proselytizing, and if she refuses to do so the school is well within its rights to terminate her employment.
Ray Wise plays the mean-spirited atheist attorney for the ACLU, an organization often misrepresented by Christians as not willing to defend the rights of religious believers. The ACLU even has to explain on its website:
The ACLU vigorously defends the rights of all Americans to practice their religion. But because the ACLU is often better known for its work preventing the government from promoting and funding selected religious activities, it is sometimes wrongly assumed that the ACLU does not zealously defend the rights of all religious believers to practice their faith.
In the movie, the ACLU’s attorney convinces the freethinking (and obviously selfish and neglectful) parents of a student in Grace’s class that if they agree to sue her, their daughter will be all but guaranteed admission to Stanford (their wish, not hers). Not only that, they will also receive a large settlement from the school. The parents, of course, agree even though their daughter doesn’t want to sue her teacher and has even become a Christian because of her interactions with her.
This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Being a prominent atheist involved in a landmark case trying to restrict Christian religious power makes you a target, not someone to envy. Many plaintiffs in similar cases need to be classified as John or Jane Does in order to protect their identity because Christian communities are quick to try to run atheists or religious minorities out of town when they discover that they are suing the city or the school district for supporting Christianity. Contrary to what the movie suggests most Establishment Clause cases seek nominal damages or no damages at all and only seek an injunction preventing the school district from taking a similar action in the future. The reality of Establishment Clause cases is that lawsuits are really about keeping church and state separate and not about receiving fame, notoriety, or huge sums of money.
The case originally hinges on whether Grace was actually proselytizing to her students. The ACLU supports the right of parents to choose what kind of religious upbringing their children should receive (a right that I am sure even Christians cherish) free from interference from a public school teacher. The ACLU’s attorney uses a catchy phrase to describe that she was, “preaching not teaching.” Grace’s attorney takes the all too familiar stance that the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution and that this phrase actually comes from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to reassure the Danbury Baptist Association that the state wouldn’t interfere with their religion.
While it is true that Thomas Jefferson mentioned a wall of separation between church and state in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, just looking at the words and context he uses, it is clear that Jefferson was well aware that this wall is comprised of both the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make ‘no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” The Supreme Court first adopted Jefferson’s metaphor in the 1878 case, Reynolds v. United States, writing that it, “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the schope and the effect of the [First] Amendment.” Both Jefferson and the Supreme Court have agreed that the Establishment Clause is meant to keep religion out of the government just as much as it is meant to keep the government out of the church. In fact, it is impossible to have freedom of religion without a government that is free from religion.
Somewhere in the middle of the movie the case transitions away from any remote connection with reality into a trial to prove that Jesus really existed. The defense reasons that this would make it permissible for him to be mentioned in a history class. Grace’s attorney parades many real-life Christian apologists to the stand to prove that Jesus is real (and to promote their books). Somewhere after this onslaught, one juror, (the Christian pastor who saved Kevin Sorbo’s atheist soul after he was violently killed in the original God’s Not Dead) passes out from appendicitis and is replaced by a girl with tattoos and dyed hair (you know, an atheist). They continue to show this girl throughout the rest of the movie to remind you that the one person sure to rule on Grace’s side has been replaced by someone who is sure to side against God.
Outside the courtroom atheists and presumably other non-Christians are yelling about separation of church and state while the Christians sit stoically in silence. Suddenly, the student whose parents are suing bursts into the courtroom. The judge is infuriated at this disruption but not enough that he doesn’t allow the defense to call her as a witness over her parents’ protest. The ACLU’s attorney manages to get her to admit that the only reason she brought up Jesus in class is that during a private discussion with Grace, after school, Grace told her about her faith and the student was interested. So interested, in fact, that by this point in the movie she has become a full-fledged Christian. The defense at this point feels defeated. The jury has turned on them because they feel like Grace is a liar because she really was talking with this student about her religious beliefs, just not in the classroom. This is where the events depicted in the movie go from unrealistic to unbelievable.
Grace’s attorney calls Grace to the stand. She asks if she has to take the stand and the judge confirms that she does. Her attorney asks for permission to treat her as a hostile witness and, of course, the judge allows it. He then begins to question her about a private conversation that they had the night before. He yells at her and forces her to admit (through tears) how she became a Christian. At one point during this tense interaction she pleads with him, “why are you doing this to me?” (the judge does nothing). The attorney asks the jury to just go ahead and convict her and to stomp out religious freedom once and for all. (It turns out this was all just reverse psychology.) The judge instructs the jury to uphold the law because he doesn’t want a mistrial on appeal. Grace, the Christians outside the courthouse, and a Newsboys’ concert full of people, all pray for God to change the hearts of the judge and jury and to rule in her favor. If you are confused by what is going on, don’t worry so is the jury. So much so that they come back and have ruled in Grace’s favor (damn you, reverse psychology!) It turns out that the “atheist girl” who replaced the pastor was actually a Christian herself (you didn’t realize it because she doesn’t look like a Christian), a fact so subtle that only 99 percent of viewers will figure it out before the big reveal when she smiles at Grace as she walks past, the camera zooming in to show a cross tattoo on the back of her neck.
I won’t waste a lot of space explaining how nothing in this last part of the movie makes any sense, from the judge allowing an attorney to treat his client as hostile, to being able to yell at a hostile witness (your client) until she breaks down and cries. Just know that even a law student finds this scene as ridiculous as you do. There is no legal nuance here.
The movie finishes up with the ACLU deciding not to appeal the case because they do not want to set bad precedent. This is a good thing because subjecting an appeals court to review the record of this case would probably make them give up being judges all together. Grace is called an inspiration. But there is still more to the story.
The credits reveal that “this movie is based on real cases,” and a very quickly scrolling list of more than a dozen cases goes by followed by a prompt letting you know that if you find yourself in a similar situation you need to contact the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
The Human Rights Campaign describes the ADF as one of the nation’s most dangerous organizations working to prevent equality for LGBT people. That’s right, besides the boatloads of cash for the producers and contributors; the whole point of this movie was to promote a view of religious freedom that promulgates the right of Christians to discriminate against LGBT people.
God’s Not Dead 2 isn’t about religious freedom. Real religious freedom comes from having a government and schools that take no sides when it comes to religion. God’s Not Dead 2 is about stirring up more soldiers for a war on equality, soldiers who don’t even know what they are fighting for.
Never let your religious views skew your view of reality.