Can an America hostile to religion ever have another Billy Graham?

Can an America hostile to religion ever have another Billy Graham?
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Billy Graham was a unique figure not only in American history, but in the much longer history of Christianity. He led more than 400 crusades, preached to millions of souls in person, reached millions and millions more through television and radio, and counseled presidents. It will be very difficult indeed to replace a man of such impact and integrity.

It’s not surprising, then, that many people are wondering whether America will ever see another Billy Graham. But given the changes in the legal landscape over the past half century, and the hostility with which public expressions of religious faith are now treated, the real question is whether America can see another Billy Graham.

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The sawdust trail upon which Billy Graham preached led across America. Graham’s crusades were public expressions of faith, many times taking place on public property.  

Graham’s very first crusade in 1947 was held in Grand Rapids, Mich. Six thousand people heard him preach in the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium. While local religious individuals sponsored the crusade, the City of Grand Rapids owned the auditorium.

In 1952, Graham’s crusade visited Washington, D.C. Large crowds are common on the national mall, but Graham held services on the very steps of the United States Capitol. Government officials were more than supportive of Graham’s efforts, lending him the permission needed for such an event.  

As an aside, it was from those public steps that Graham called on Congress to urge the president to set aside a national day of prayer. The House of Representatives answered Graham’s call and this May America will observe the 66th official National Day of Prayer.

Graham would go on to preach at dozens of the country’s most historic publicly-owned venues, including the Akron Rubber Bowl, Rose Bowl, Will Rogers Coliseum, and the Tangerine Bowl.

In fact, the world-famous evangelist’s crusade returned to Orlando in 1983 when the City of Orlando rechristened the Tangerine Bowl what many still call the Citrus Bowl, but is today Camping World Stadium. Whatever you call it, the City of Orlando owns it.

In 2015, the football teams from two Christian schools in Florida faced off in that same stadium where, in 1969 and again in 1983, Billy Graham stood to share his Gospel message with thousands in attendance.  

Incredibly, these two religious schools were denied use of the city-owned microphone to pray over the same loudspeaker once used to amplify the disarming, baritone voice of Billy Graham as he preached and prayed.

According to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA), the use of a state-owned amplification system to transmit a 30-second Christian prayer violates the Constitution. First Liberty Institute represents one of these schools and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit will hear arguments later this year to determine whether it offends the Constitution when two religious schools pray on publicly owned property.

If the First Amendment does not protect the right of two Christian schools to pray for 30 seconds over a city-owned loudspeaker in 2015, can it protect the next Billy Graham who wants to use the same public address system in the same stadium?

Billy Graham freely exercised his religion and his public message found a warm reception in the open air of America’s government-owned coliseums and stadiums.

But, imagine if the City of Orlando told Graham “no” when he came to preach at the Tangerine Bowl in 1969. Imagine if the City of Grand Rapids told Graham he could not use their Civic Auditorium because his message was too religious? What if the City of Summit, Ohio denied his crusade entry to the Rubber Bowl because it would violate the Constitution to allow a religious message to be transmitted on its public property?

Government has enormous authority over our public lives. To abuse that authority, like the FHSAA did with our clients in Orlando, undermines the very freedoms that ensured Billy Graham could be Billy Graham.

Jeremy Dys is deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.