Understanding Freedom of Speech

What does freedom of speech mean for your church or ministry?

Understanding Freedom of Speech

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for are dress of grievances.” - The First Amendment

The First Amendment outlines some of the most fundamental rights that every American enjoys, including the right to freedom of speech.

What is Freedom of Speech?

The freedom of speech is simply the ability to say, write, or otherwise express what you truly believe without fear of punishment or retaliation from the government. This includes the freedom not to speak – meaning that you can’t be forced to say or express messages you don’t agree with.

This principle stems from, among other things, the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

The right to freedom of speech is one of our God-given, individual liberties that our government was established to help secure. Throughout our country’s history, Americans have recognized that a vibrant and prosperous nation must embrace freedom of speech because it’s essential to upholding democracy, the pursuit of truth, and limiting government’s power.

Why Should You Care About Freedom of Speech?

As a church leader, you’ve committed your life to serving your congregation and your community. One way you do this is by proclaiming the Gospel and teaching others about the faith. So being able to speak freely, not only in your house of worship, but also in the public square is central to the ministry God has called you to.

Threats to Freedom of Speech

While the right to speak freely is a fundamental freedom, some have attempted to curtail it. These attempts are likely to increase going forward in a society that pressures us to think, act, and speak in certain newfangled, “woke” ways and “cancels” those who don’t succumb to the pressure.  

Fellow church leaders have experienced threats from the government to their right to speak freely – and even to preach freely. You may recall when the city of Houston ignored the First Amendment and illegitimately demanded that local pastors, known as the Houston Five, turn over their constitutionally protected speeches, e-mails, text messages, and other communications with their congregants so the city could see if the pastors had ever opposed or criticized a proposed city ordinance.

Efforts to limit freedom of speech don’t stop at pastors. Everyday people – like those in your congregation – face legal threats simply for living out their faith. Click on the sections below to see real-life stories.


Chike Uzuegbunam, a student at Georgia Gwinnett College, was stopped not once, but twice, from sharing his Christian faith with fellow students in a public area on campus. First, officials said to continue speaking, he had to use one of two tiny speech zones on campus and get advance permission to use them.

Chike did what they asked. He reserved a time and went to the speech zone to speak about his faith. But this time, two campus police officers approached Chike, demanded his ID card, and told him they had received a complaint about his speech. The officers then ordered him to stop and threatened him with discipline if he continued to speak about his faith, blatantly ignoring his right to freedom of speech. When Chike filed suit, college officials first argued that the First Amendment did not protect his freedom to present the Gospel on campus, an argument they later retracted.


A Pittsburgh City ordinance attempted to ban sidewalk counselors, like Nikki Bruni, from counseling or praying with women on a public sidewalk near the entrance of an abortion clinic. 

The ordinance allowed others to speak to women about the weather or sports as they approached the clinic’s door but prevented counselors from entering a zone – that extended 15 feet in every direction from the entrance – to provide literature, pray, or speak with a pregnant woman about matters of faith, nonprofit services, and life and death.

The City Council Chair, who sponsored the law, admitted that it was intended to prevent women from hearing pro-life speech.


Shawnee State University officials punished philosophy professor Dr. Nicholas Meriwether, who had served at the university for over 20 years with an unblemished record, because he declined a male student’s demand to be referred to as a woman, with feminine titles and pronouns. Dr. Meriwether believes that God has created human beings as either male or female, and that a person’s sex cannot change. To call a man a woman or vice versa endorses an ideology that conflicts with his beliefs. So, Dr. Meriwether offered a compromise: He would refer to this student by a first or last name only. 

But the university ultimately rejected this compromise, choosing instead to force the professor to speak and act contrary to his own Christian convictions and philosophical beliefs.

ADF sued on behalf of Dr. Meriwether and eventually won at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that he shouldn’t be forced to speak a message that violates his beliefs. 

The University of Louisville hired Dr. Allan Josephson in 2003 to serve as the Division Chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychology. During his tenure, he made significant improvements to the program, elevating it to a position of national reputation.

In 2017, Dr. Josephson participated in a panel discussion where he expressed his professional views on the treatment of youth experiencing gender dysphoria. Several university faculty and staff members objected to his views, and as a result, the university demoted him from his long-held position. In the spring of 2019, the university then informed Dr. Josephson it was not renewing his contract for the upcoming academic year, thus terminating him. 

Public colleges have no business punishing people simply because they hold different views than their colleagues or the administration.

Creative Professionals

Jack Phillips, a cake artist in Colorado, gladly serves everyone, but as is customary practice for many artists, he declines to use his creative expression to celebrate events and messages that conflict with his deeply held beliefs. In 2012, two men asked Jack to design a wedding cake to celebrate their same-sex ceremony, but Phillips declined because this would not only violate his conscience but also demean his integrity as an artist. Jack soon faced a legal complaint and after six years of litigation, his case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled in Jack’s favor in that case. But Jack’s legal journey didn’t end there. Activists and hostile Colorado officials have continued attempting to destroy Jack’s livelihood and his rights. He’s now in the middle of his third lawsuit, where an activist sued Jack after he declined to create a custom cake celebrating a “gender transition.” Jack has lost a big part of his business, more than half his employees, and endured hate mail and even death threats throughout his battles in court, but he’s not backing down in his pursuit to protect his fundamental freedoms.

Unfortunately, Jack isn’t alone. Government officials across the country have also tried to dictate what other creative professionals—like filmmakers, photographers, floral artists, and graphic designers—can express through their work.

Ministry Leaders

Heidi Matzke runs Alternatives Pregnancy Center in Sacramento, California. Like many other pro-life pregnancy centers, it exists to minister to women and help them discover alternatives to abortion.

California officials tried to force Heidi’s center and other pro-life pregnancy centers to go against their mission and violate their convictions when the state enacted AB 775, a law that effectively required pregnancy centers to promote abortion.

This law required licensed medical centers that offer free, pro-life help to pregnant women to post signs or distribute a disclosure saying that California provides free or low-cost abortion and contraception. The mandated speech was also required to include a phone number for a county office that refers women to Planned Parenthood and other abortion clinics. If they did not comply, they faced fines up to $1,000 per violation.

Upholding Freedom of Speech Matters

The censoring of ideas, silencing of certain viewpoints, or “canceling” someone with an unpopular opinion harms not only the spread of the Gospel but also the ability of some to live out their faith. Instead of stifling free speech, we need to be oriented toward open dialogue so that truth can be heard and ultimately prevail, which in turn helps create a flourishing society.

Alliance Defending Freedom is committed to protecting the freedom of speech — not just for some — but for every American. That’s why we’ve represented each of the individuals in the stories above.

The bottom line: Strong free speech protections ensure that each of us can speak our views freely and live out our faith in the public square without fear of government punishment.

Understanding Your Rights

Church leaders don’t give up their First Amendment rights when they agree to lead a ministry. You should feel empowered to live out your faith and encourage others to do the same.

In your personal or professional capacity as a representative of your church, you can speak about the cultural and moral issues of the day without restriction. In fact, given that Scripture discusses much of what is being debated in our culture, churches have a unique role in guiding that discussion.

The potential legal limitations begin only when you start taking political sides in your professional capacity – specifically when talking about legislation, political parties, or candidates:

  1. Speech About Candidates and Political Parties
    A 1954 law, commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment, prohibits churches and pastors, when acting in a professional capacity, from speech that shows support or opposition to a political party or candidate for elective public office. This includes sermons.

    Violation of the Johnson Amendment can result in the loss of tax-exempt status. There have been attempts to fix this problematic law – as we believe it has a chilling effect on ministers – but unfortunately it is still in effect.
  2. Speech About Legislation
    A church may discuss legislative issues, support or oppose legislation, and encourage its members, the general public, or specific candidates to support or oppose legislation, but only up to an “insubstantial amount” of the church’s annual budget, time, or activities. Unfortunately, the Internal Revenue Service does not define what an “insubstantial amount” is, but instead determines this on a case-by-case basis.

If your church or ministry has questions about what qualifies as an “insubstantial amount” or about your First Amendment rights, you can obtain access to helpful resources by becoming a member of the ADF Church & Ministry Alliance.

Members of the program have access to ADF attorneys who can offer guidance on religious liberty issues, help you understand the legal significance of the language you use to describe your ministry, and draw your attention to potential legal issues which could impact your kingdom work. We want you to have peace of mind ensuring you stand on a firm legal foundation. Click here to learn more about the membership.

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