On Tuesday, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) a letter demanding he stop posting Bible verses on Twitter because doing so amounted to a government establishment of religion. The letter essentially threatened a lawsuit, claiming that legal actions on this basis have been successful in the past.
“I am writing on behalf of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) regarding a constitutional violation occurring on your Twitter account, @MarcoRubio,” FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel wrote in the letter. “We understand that you have been tweeting bible verses from @MarcoRubio to nearly three million followers.”
Seidel noted that “this is not an errant bible verse or two, but more than 60 bible verses in three months. That’s enough to tweet the entire Book of Jude. Twice.” (Jude is the fifth-shortest book in the Bible, with a grand total of 25 verses.)
The lawyer specifically noted that Rubio tweeted Exodus 20:21 — “Yahweh then said to Moses, stretch out your hand toward heaven and let darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt, cover Egypt” — during the eclipse. The lawyer also noted that this was the second-to-last plague “the biblical god inflicts on Egypt, the final plague being the murder of every firstborn male, from infant to octogenarian,” but he forgot to mention Rubio’s tweeting Psalm 19 immediately afterward.
The heavens declare the glory of God; Psalm 19:1
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 21, 2017
“It is not for the government in our secular republic to promote one religious book over others or to promote religion over nonreligion. Doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” the FFRF lawyer argued. He interpreted the clause extremely broadly, claiming that “government officials cannot appear to endorse Christianity.”
Seidel cited a ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals striking down President Donald Trump’s proposed travel ban, which found tweets on the president’s Twitter feed are considered “official statements by the President of the United States.” The FFRF lawyer told Rubio, “[W]e see no legal reason to treat your Twitter feed differently.”
“By tying your government title to a social media page, you have intimately entwined your official position with the messages you send on that platform, creating the appearance of official endorsement,” the lawyer wrote.
Seidel also cited Davison v. Loudoun County Board of Supervisers, a federal court ruling that found a public official could not block a constituent from her Facebook page. “The private social media accounts of people who assume government office can become accounts that speak for the government, unless these officers carefully distinguish their public and private roles,” he wrote.
The lawyer faulted the @MarcoRubio account for failing to be “scrupulous or thorough in this regard,” since it “regularly, indeed mostly, transmits official statements and would be considered government speech.”
Here’s the kicker: “Citizens cannot be expected to discern the difference between an official government statement and a private statement when the source of those statements has not itself bothered to make the distinction clear.”
While Sen. Rubio also has another more official account, @SenRubioPress, Seidel argued that this distinction is not enough. “The tweets from President Trump’s @RealDonaldTrump were held to be ‘official statements’ despite the existence of several other official accounts, including @WhiteHouse and @POTUS,” he wrote.
The FFRF lawyer admitted that press releases from Rubio’s office have described @MarcoRubio as a “personal” Twitter account, but argued that the releases have encouraged constituents to follow that account for official updates all the same.
Seidel presented two solutions to this alleged “constitutional violation:” either Rubio must stop tweeting the Bible from @MarcoRubio, or he must remove “all traces of the public office” from that account.
Then came the threat. “Lawsuits to vindicate the rights of constituents regarding the social media accounts of government officials and the government have been successful,” the lawyer warned. “The ACLU has sued three cities in Indiana, Maine Governor Paul LePage, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan over social media accounts.”
Adding insult to injury, Seidel concluded with the ultimate holier-than-thou put down. “If the law and your oath to uphold the Constitution are not sufficient to convince you to stop, perhaps you might consider reading Matthew 6:5-6, in which Jesus condemns public prayer as hypocrisy in his Sermon on the Mount.”
The problems with using this argument are legion. Was Seidel acknowledging the validity of Jesus’ teachings — in a public letter? If so, why decapitalize God and the Bible in some petty vindictive violation of AP style?
Furthermore, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. … let your light so shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14, 16).
Jesus called out public prayer to emphasize the hypocrisy of religious leaders. Christians are to deny themselves, forget themselves, and be focused on God, rather than their own honor. It is perfectly consistent with this humble attitude to keep tweeting Bible verses.
None of this gets to the heart of the issue, however. Did Rubio violate the Constitution? Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel at First Liberty Institute, told PJ Media the answer is clearly “no.”
“It is sad to see a group from Wisconsin trying to intimidate Senator Rubio into silencing his personal faith,” Dys said in a statement. “I am confident Senator Rubio will not let a legally baseless letter silence his personal faith.”
What makes this letter “legally baseless”? The meaning of “establishment of religion,” for one. At the time when the First Amendment was drafted, “establishment of religion” meant having a national church, to which the state sent taxes paid as tithes. Many states had such churches, but the federal government was prohibited from doing so.
Had America’s founders considered “establishment of religion” to mean what Seidel said it means, they would not have: 1- had prayers in front of Congress, 2- praised religion as a moral and civic good (enshrining education on the basis of its connection to religion), 3- frequently referred to God in official documents (the Declaration of Independence) and public speeches.
Furthermore, Seidel’s reading of the First Amendment would make one of the greatest presidential speeches of all time — Lincoln’s second inaugural address — blatantly unconstitutional. In that speech, President Lincoln had the gall to suggest that God sent the Civil War to both sides as a punishment for slavery.
Would Hillary Clinton’s scripture citation in her 2016 concession speech also be problematic? What about President Obama’s quotations from Proverbs in speeches at Arlington Cemetery?
Finally, was the FFRF lawyer seriously suggesting that American citizens are not smart enough to sift through an account like @MarcoRubio to see which statements are official business and which are not? Seidel seems to have a very pessimistic view of Americans’ average intelligence, and basing a legal argument on such grounds is not only insulting — it’s outrageous.
Even so, this is not the first time FFRF has pressured a public official to stop tweeting about his Christian faith. In April, the atheist group pressured the University of Mississippi to prevent its (then-) head football coach Hugh Freeze from using his Twitter account to declare his faith in God.
Dys told The Christian Post that “football coaches do not lose their First Amendment rights simply because they work for a public university. The First Amendment protects the right of Americans like Coach Freeze to engage in religious expression on their personal Twitter accounts.”
“The FFRF has resorted to intolerant bullying in an attempt to silence and censor Coach Freeze,” Dys concluded.
While Rubio’s office did not respond to a request for comment, the senator has tweeted multiple Bible verses since receiving this letter, and one in particular stands out. “Your eyes behold strange sights, and your heart utters incoherent things,” the senator tweeted on Wednesday.
Your eyes behold strange sights, and your heart utters incoherent things. Proverbs 23:33
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 23, 2017
Incoherent things, indeed.