Protecting Your Right to Freely Proclaim the Gospel


Scott Blakeman

A Vision for Freedom Series (Part 5):
Protecting Your Right to Freely Proclaim the Gospel

Take a moment and think about the ways you've used your "speech" today.

Have you had an in-person conversation with a family member or colleague? Written and sent an email? What about a text message? Perhaps you’re a pastor and you’re writing your sermon for Sunday?  

Speech is an integral part of our lives. It not only helps us navigate and accomplish routine tasks we have to complete to survive and thrive; it allows us to express our deepest beliefs and convictions about God and the world we live in. So, being able to speak freely is obviously very important.

That's one of the reasons why Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) established All Can Speak Freely: Securing free speech for all as a “Generational Win” worth fighting for.

What is Freedom of Speech?

A basic definition is in order: freedom of speech is the ability to say, write, or express what you truly believe without fear of punishment or retaliation from the government. Importantly, this also includes the freedom not to speak – meaning that you can't be forced to say things you don't believe.

Freedom of speech is one of the "unalienable" rights described in the Declaration of Independence. The right is God-given, so the government can't take it away. In fact, our government was established, in part, to help secure and protect it.

Speaking freely seems like a simple act, and, in one sense, it is. But it's also one of the most profound actions a human can undertake. Freedom of speech has helped to build a vibrant and prosperous United States; it helps uphold our democracy, the pursuit of truth, and limits the government's power.

Theological Implications of Free Speech

As humans made in the image of God, we're called to exercise wise stewardship over all creation. This stewardship encompasses both physical creation as well as our relationships with other people.

Since we live in a broken world, our interactions with others are flawed. But we are told to "speak the truth in love" to one another (Ephesians 4:15). Through Christ's death and resurrection, God initiated the rescue and redemption of His creation and is making all things new. This is the Good News that Jesus commissioned His followers to share with everyone, to the ends of the earth.

But how will this happen? The Apostle Paul asks the same question in Romans 10:14: "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?"

Speech is clearly central to this mission. Protecting the right to speak freely is not only necessary for the flourishing of society, but it's also integral to proclaiming the Gospel.

What Freedom of Speech is Not

Some argue that freedom of speech is just a rhetorical tool used by people who want to say hateful things about others without consequences. But that is simply not true.

Free speech is a right every individual possesses as a human being created by God. The right to free speech respects and reflects the fact that humans are made in the image of God and, therefore, have intrinsic dignity.

This right isn't just for those with certain popular beliefs. There are as many unique perspectives as there are people. Free speech is about our ability to share our perspectives with others.

But while the Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal," this doesn't mean that all ideas are equal. There will always be bad or even false ideas that we must address. But addressing them shouldn't involve shutting down debate or silencing the people sharing those ideas. The answer should be more speech. We can use our own speech to answer misguided statements with loving and truthful ones. We can debate ideas we consider bad with those we believe are good.

No matter what, we need those with whom we disagree to be involved in the conversation.

Debating with people who disagree with us sharpens our ideas and may even allow us to see the truth in a new and unexpected way. Also, the right to free speech of those who disagree with us should be protected because they are human beings with dignity, just like us. And if their right is taken away when the tides shift, ours can easily be taken away too.

Free Speech in the Courtroom

Helping ensure that all can speak freely requires litigating cases to help achieve that goal. ADF is, and has been, involved in numerous cases defending and promoting free speech. Here are some you should know about.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College officials stopped student Chike Uzuegbunam not once but twice, from peacefully sharing his Christian faith with fellow students and others on his college campus.

First, officials said he had to get advance permission to use one of two tiny speech zones that comprised far less than 1 percent of the campus and were only open 10 percent of the week. Despite following these policies, Chike was again prevented from speaking.

After ADF challenged the unconstitutional policies, Georgia Gwinnett argued that Chike's speech should receive no constitutional protection. Then it changed its policy and claimed it should be able to avoid any penalty for violating Chike's free speech rights. Two courts agreed, but the Supreme Court did not, ruling 8-1 in Chike's favor.

The Supreme Court made clear that our government officials have a duty to protect our rights, and when they violate them, there should be consequences. That is, government officials do not get a free pass when they violate our priceless liberties.

The First Amendment guarantees a right to free speech, and college officials everywhere should be in the business of upholding and cherishing that right. When they violate students' rights, they should face the consequences. When courts don't step in and hold government officials accountable for trampling someone's constitutional rights, it enables and encourages the government to violate someone else's rights in the future.

Woodfill v. Parker

In 2014, Houston’s then Mayor Annise Parker worked with the city council to pass the “Equal Rights Ordinance,” adding gender identity and sexual orientation as protected classes under city law. This ordinance posed threats not only to women and children, but to the rights of free speech and religious freedom of churches.

This spurred citizens to press for the council to either repeal the bill or place it on the ballot for voters to decide the matter. The public submitted more than three times the legally required number of valid signatures to certify a ballot initiative, but the mayor and city attorney had other plans: they defied the law and rejected the certification.

The initiative’s supporters then filed a lawsuit. Shockingly, the city’s attorneys proceeded to subpoena a number of local pastors, demanding to see what they preached from the pulpit and to examine their communications with their church members and others pertaining to the city council’s actions.

Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in to help these churches and their pastors fend off Houston’s harassment, and churches from all over the city made their voices heard. Eventually, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the ordinance had to be put to a vote. Thankfully, over sixty percent of voters rejected the City’s abuse of power, effectively repealing the unconstitutional ordinance.

National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra

The mission of pro-life pregnancy centers is to help women navigate pregnancy and motherhood while protecting the lives of their unborn children. They work to support alternative options for women who do not want to end the lives of their children in the womb. This is at the heart of why the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) exists.

NIFLA is a non-profit network of pregnancy centers around the United States that believes in affirming the value of every life. The organization was founded in 1993 to protect life-affirming pregnancy centers that empower women and families to choose life for their unborn children.

The network comprises more than 1,600 pregnancy centers across the U.S.—offering counsel and support, and providing resources to help them become licensed medical clinics. NIFLA also assists other organizations that offer services to the centers, including maternity homes, adoption agencies, and fatherhood initiatives.

So, it would seem obvious that illuminating the way to abortion violates the very mission of NIFLA and its member centers.

But in 2015, California passed a law attempting to force pregnancy centers to do just that by advertising abortion as an option for women facing unplanned pregnancies. This directly violated these pregnancy centers' right to free speech. The law targeted these centers in two specific ways. First, the law required medically licensed pregnancy centers to tell pregnant women that California offers free or low-cost abortions—including by posting conspicuous signs in the pregnancy centers’ waiting rooms. The disclosures also had to include a phone number for a county office, which would then refer women to Planned Parenthood or other abortion providers.

Second, it forced unlicensed pregnancy centers to add large disclosures to any advertisements explaining they were not medically licensed. This even applied to pregnancy centers that did not provide medical services but other free services like parenting classes or materials like diapers and strollers. The disclosures were clearly meant to drown out the pregnancy centers' pro-life message and give the false impression that they were not qualified to provide care to pregnant mothers.

Shortly after the law's passage in California, ADF attorneys filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of NIFLA and two individual pregnancy centers in the state, seeking to have the unconstitutional law struck down. The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled in NIFLA’s favor, overturning California's law and freeing pro-life pregnancy centers to assist women without being forced to advertise abortion.

While many Americans primarily think of the First Amendment as protecting our right to speak freely about our beliefs, it is important to remember that it also protects us from being forced to speak messages we object to.

303 Creative v. Elenis

Lorie Smith is an artist who runs her own design studio, 303 Creative. She specializes in graphic and website design and loves to visually convey messages in every site she creates. Lorie left the corporate design world to start her own small business in 2012 so she could use her skills to promote causes consistent with her beliefs and close to her heart, such as supporting children with disabilities, the beauty of marriage, overseas missions, animal shelters, and veterans’ issues.

She was excited to expand her portfolio to create websites that celebrate marriage between a man and a woman, but her home state of Colorado made it clear she’s not welcome in that space.

A Colorado law censors what Lorie wants to say and requires her to create designs that violate her beliefs about marriage. Lorie enjoys working with people from all walks of life, but, like most artists, can’t promote every message. Lorie’s decisions about which projects to design are based on what message she’s being asked to express, not who requests it.

After realizing that Colorado was censoring her—and seeing Colorado use this same law to punish Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips—Lorie challenged the law to protect her freedom and the free speech of all Americans.

In July 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled against Lorie, holding that Colorado can force her to create websites promoting messages that contradict her beliefs about marriage, so she appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court took up her case and oral arguments were heard in December of 2022.

Thankfully, in June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in Lorie's favor and confirmed that the First Amendment’s Free Speech Clause protects creative professionals from applications of non-discrimination rules that compel them to create expression contrary to their convictions.

All Should be Able to Speak Freely

Stifling free speech harms not only the spread of the Gospel but also the ability of many to live out their faith. That is why, instead of stifling free speech, we need to protect open dialogue so that truth can be heard and hopefully prevail, which 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 and organizations in the stories above, and that's why we'll continue to fearlessly defend this unalienable and indispensable right.

Read more from the "A Vision for Freedom" series:

Part One: The Roots of Alliance Defending Freedom

Part Two: Securing Freedom for Generations to Come

Part Three: The Importance of Parental Rights

Part Four: Religious Freedom Prevails

Part Six: Made in His Image: A Christian Response to the Culture of Death

Part Seven: The Gospel is the Essence of Freedom

Recent Posts

How the Johnson Amendment Affects Churches

During his run for a second term in office, President Lincoln sought political support for his re-election from an institution that was otherwise...