More than 40 congressional Republicans sent a letter to Smithsonian Institute Secretary Lonnie Bunch on Tuesday demanding to know why staff at the Smithsonian National Air Space Museum (NASM) allegedly expelled students for wearing pro-life hats.
Lawmakers, led by Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and several others, sent the letter the day after the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed the lawsuit in United States District Court for the District of Columbia on behalf of nine students and three parents who it says were “unlawfully targeted for their pro-life religious views” on January 20, 2023.
The students went to the museum after attending the 50th annual Walk for Life and wore hats that said “Rosary Pro-Life.” During their stay, museum staff allegedly mocked the students, called them swear words, and told them their hats were “political statements” and that they “did not promote equality,” according to the complaint. The staff also allegedly told them that the museum was a “neutral zone” and that the First Amendment “does not apply here” before finally getting them out of the museum. The complaint notes that several other museum patrons wore hats and masks, some of which had “Pride” rainbow graphics.
Lawmakers told Bunch they were “not aware of any law, rule or regulation prohibiting members of the public from wearing pro-life hats inside Smithsonian office buildings.”
“In addition, there is a large body of case law supporting First Amendment citizens’ rights to public property,” the letter read.
“As a federal entity and recipient of more than $1 billion in federal funds each year, there should be no debate as to whether the First Amendment applies to the Smithsonian. We are deeply concerned about this unjust expulsion of young Americans from museums – subsidized by taxpayers’ money – for wearing clothes your staff disagreed with,” the letter continued.
Lawmakers asked Bunch a series of questions about the incident and asked him to provide answers by Feb. 16, 2023.
- Have you been made aware of the alleged incident that occurred on January 20, 2023?
- If yes, when were you informed of the incident?
- Did the Smithsonian conduct internal investigations into the allegations?
- Please provide the names of Smithsonian employees whose conduct is at issue.
- What disciplinary action has the Smithsonian taken regarding this incident?
- If no action has been taken, please describe the action plan the Smithsonian plans to take regarding this incident.
- Does the Smithsonian have a policy prohibiting the expression of pro-life sentiments in its buildings or a policy deeming it a “neutral zone”?
- What efforts have you made to ensure that the First Amendment rights of all Americans are respected at the Air and Space Museum and that an incident like this never happens again under your leadership?
The students accuse the Smithsonian of violating their First and Fifth Amendment rights, as well as the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act (RFRA). Their attorneys are asking the court to enjoin the defendants for “unlawful targeting of the plaintiff, for disparate treatment and particular scrutiny based on content and point of view or association.” The lawsuit also calls for museum employees to receive “appropriate training” to ensure their “conduct complies with federal law and the Constitution of the United States.”
The deal is Kristi L. vs. National Air and Space MuseumNo. 1:23-cv-335 in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.