Bob's blog – A skeptical lawyer

God’s Not Dead 2 – Legally stupid

Posted on December 31, 2018

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You might wonder why I would use a poster for a cheesy 1950s science-fiction movie in a post about a recent Christian film. Pure Flix, the producer of God’s Not Dead 2, would not give me permission to use a picture from their film, and I don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement. Matthew 5:40 must not apply to publicity stills. Therefore, I tried to find artwork or photographs from a movie of similar quality and believability.

Critics generally trashed God’s Not Dead 2, a film aimed at an evangelical audience. Even Evangelical reviewers found plenty to criticize, but I will address its legal mistakes rather than its dramatic flaws.

This cinematic roadkill already smells like a ten-hole outhouse in July, but, in an abundance of caution, I warn you:

HERE BE SPOILERS

The story

God’s Not Dead 2 portrays Christians suffering vicious persecution in a culture dominated by atheism and other evil forces, illustrating a persecution complex made all the more ridiculous by the fact that the movie is set in the fictional town of Hope Springs, Arkansas. Arkansas proudly occupies the Bible belt and is 86% Christian, most of whom are evangelical.

Melissa Joan Hart played Grace Wesley, a high school teacher and devout Christian. Brooke, a student in Grace’s history class, asked whether Martin Luther King’s nonviolence was “sort of like” Jesus saying we should love our enemies.

Grace chose her words carefully. She answered Brooke’s question by explaining that the writer of the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus as saying, “You have heard it said, ‘you shall love your neighbors and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Grace then explained how Rev. King took inspiration from both Jesus and Gandhi.

Grace’s history lesson was undeniably true. She quoted Matthew 5:43-45. She did not tell her students that Jesus – as opposed to the writer of the gospel of Matthew – said anything. Likewise, she did not claim that St. Matthew actually wrote the Gospel of Matthew. The Jesus Seminar, a group of liberal New Testament scholars, believe Matthew 5:43-45 “most likely” states an authentic saying of Jesus,  but Grace made no such claim. She merely stated the undeniable fact that Matthew 5:43-45 influenced Rev. King.

All heck breaks loose after this innocuous event. Grace is hauled into a meeting where an authority figure that I assume to be the principal expresses horror that Grace would talk about Jesus in the classroom. Grace is placed on disciplinary suspension while the school figures out what to do with her.

Meanwhile, the ACLU somehow learns that Grace had breached the wall between church and state. A demonically evil ACLU lawyer – who brags about his intense hatred for Grace “and everything she stands for” – convinces Brooke’s parents to sue Grace on Brooke’s behalf. The school decides to let the ACLU do their dirty work because it will be easier to fire Grace after she loses in court.

From my point of view as a practicing lawyer, five legal absurdities stand out from the rest of the film’s stupidity.

  1. Grace did nothing controversial

Courts have repeatedly held that schools can teach accurate and objective biblical history.[1] The U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “it might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization.”[2]

A school lawyer tells Grace that she violated “state and federal guidelines,” but he mentions no specific guideline. The U.S. Department of Education guidelines say that teachers may teach about religion, including the Bible, for purposes of instruction in history and literature.

The American Civil Liberties Union does not wish to change these intelligent and well-established legal principles. The ACLU website features a joint statement executed by the ACLU and many religious and nonreligious organizations: “Religion in the Public Schools: A Joint Statement of Current Law.” The Statement explains:

It is both permissible and desirable to teach objectively about the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries. One can teach that … many of those participating in the abolitionist, women’s suffrage and civil rights movements had religious motivations.

The plain fact is that neither the ACLU nor any intelligent person would object to Grace’s answer to Brooke’s question about Rev. King drawing inspiration from the Bible.

  1. Brooke had no cause of action

A cause of action is a legally cognizable claim that gives a person a right to seek legal redress from another person. Grace is supposedly on trial for proselytizing, exposing Brooke to religious teachings. In their opening arguments, both lawyers seem to assume that Grace could violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which provides that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

The establishment clause creates no cause of action against Grace because it applies to the government, not to individuals like Grace. Brooke’s parents might be able to sue the school, but the First Amendment would create no cause of action against Grace individually.

If a cause of action actually existed for proselytizing, then all the students in Grace’s class would have the same claim as Brooke. Brooke would have no special claim merely because she asked the question that led to the alleged proselytizing.

Grace’s lawyer explains that Brooke’s parents seek “injunctive relief” to have Grace fired plus revocation of her teaching certificate. Injunctive relief authorizes the judge to order parties to take specific actions. The judge might be able to order the school district to fire Grace and order the state to revoke her teaching certificate. However, neither the school district or the state are parties to the lawsuit against Grace.

  1. Grace did not need to prove Jesus existed

In the middle of trial, Grace and her lawyer finally figure out that Grace was entitled to teach history in a history class. They then present witnesses who testify that Jesus existed. This testimony has no point.

Although mythicists do not believe Jesus existed, most historians consider Jesus as real a historical figure as Mohammed or Joseph Smith. However, Grace did not tell the class Jesus existed, so it would not be an issue at her trial.

  1. Grace’s lawyer could not order her to testify

Although criminal defendants often exercise their right to remain silent, most defendants in civil cases testify in order to tell their side of the story. However, the climax of God’s Not Dead 2 unfolds when, without warning and against Grace’s will, Grace’s lawyer calls her to the stand and the judge orders her to testify.

This could never happen. Lawyers can strongly advise their clients, but, push come to shove, the lawyer works for the client. Likewise, the judge in this courtroom drama could not order Grace to testify. Piling irrationality on top of stupidity, the judge grants Grace’s lawyer’s request to treat Grace as a hostile witness. FYI – a defendant cannot be hostile to her own defense.

Grace’s lawyer then badgers the doe-eyed teacher into tearfully admitting that she has a personal relationship with Jesus, although exactly why a Christian should be reluctant to admit that is never explained. Then, while the judge dramatically bangs his gavel, Grace’s lawyer – in an obvious and clumsy attempt at reverse psychology – launches into a bizarre soliloquy explaining that the jury should find Grace liable because they must stamp out all religion in the public square.

  1. No jury question existed

In the real world, judges explain the law to the jury, and then the jury decides the facts. If a cause of action for proselytizing existed, then the judge might instruct the jury that “proselytize” means to seek to convert others to a belief.[3] The jury could then decide whether Grace intended to proselytize her students when she quoted Matthew 5:43-45 in class. Of course, nothing so rational happened in God’s Not Dead 2.

After Grace’s lawyer finishes his tirade, the judge decides to “bypass the normal closing arguments.” The judge tells the jury:

My instructions to you are quite simple. Uphold the law without unfairly prejudicing your decision or risking mistrial on appeal. I think I can safely say that defendant’s counsel has dared you to convict his own client. The jury will now be dismissed for deliberation.

What the devil does that mean? The jury cannot “convict” Grace in a civil trial. The judge has not explained the applicable law, so what law is the jury supposed to uphold?

Conclusion

Of course, the jury decides, “We find in favor of Grace Wesley.” Apparently, this means that God is not dead. Grace’s lawyer reveals that, when he asked the jury to find her liable, he actually wanted them to decide in her favor. Anyone so stupid that they did not see that coming should not be allowed to leave home unless supervised by a responsible caregiver.


[1] Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F.Supp. 133, 148‑50 (D.C. Tenn., 1979).

[2] Sch. Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225, 83 S. Ct. 1560, 1573, 10 L. Ed. 2d 844 (1963).

[3] Mullin v. Sussex County, Del., 861 F. Supp. 2d 411, 427 (D. Del. 2012).


-rgmiller