During a town hall event in South Carolina on Monday, Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz made the bold claim that he will defend religious liberty because “what kind of country are we living in where…we’re threatening teenage girls with going to jail if they say the name of Jesus?”
Cruz made the remark after telling the story of Angela Hildenbrand, a high school valedictorian who he claims was “threatened with jail if she exercised her right to pray during her graduation speech.” At the South Carolina event and at other campaign events in the past, Cruz has discussed her story as an example of the government’s war on Christianity. As he explained on Monday, Hildenbrand was initially barred from leading prayer, but attorneys from the Liberty Institute filed an emergency motion and won an appeal shortly before her graduation.
Cruz has named Hildenbrand one of his “religious liberty heroes”, and she appeared beside him on stage last month during his South Carolina Rally for Religious Liberty.
But Hildenbrand was not actually threatened with jail for praying. In fact, every part of Cruz’s statement in South Carolina is incorrect, Greg Lipper, an attorney for Americans United for Separation of Church & State, who worked on the case, told ThinkProgress.
The family of Corwyn Schultz, one of Hildenbrand’s high school classmates, filed a lawsuit against the Medina Valley Independent School District in 2011, challenging the fact that speakers at the high school graduation would often lead the audience in proselytizing prayers and invocations.
The district court judge sided with the Schultz family, ruling in a preliminary injunction that graduation prayers violate the Establishment Clause. “He said the students could still make religious references in their speeches,” Lipper said. “They just couldn’t deliver prayers.” Lipper noted that the injunction was in agreement with a ruling the U.S. Supreme Court has also made with respect to another school district in Texas.
Cruz’s claim that the judge threatened Hildenbrand with jail time is also completely false, Lipper said.
“There was a reference in the preliminary injunction to enforcement mechanisms, but that was aimed at the school district and not the students,” he said. “There was no threat of any student getting punished by the court, let alone getting sent to jail.”
As with any court order, a government official could be held in contempt of the court if they refuse to comply with the ruling. If they continue to refuse to comply — as Kim Davis did — it’s possible the official could be sent to jail, but the judge “certainly wasn’t like, ‘Don’t mention Jesus or you’re going to jail,” Lipper said
In fact, Hildenbrand was not even named in the lawsuit at the time of the injunction — she intervened and added her name as a defendant during the appeals process.
Attorneys with the Liberty Institute, a Christian legal defense organization, appealed the injunction on behalf of the school district and Hildenbrand. In a victory for the religious organization, the appeals court overturned the ruling, finding that the prayers were student-initiated and not school-sponsored. Hildenbrand ended up leading the crowd in prayer during the graduation ceremony — Schultz declined to attend — and Hildenbrand has since become a symbol for conservative politicians of what they call the government’s persecution of Christianity.
“This case has been cat nip for presidential candidates for some time,” Lipper said, adding that Newt Gingrich also frequently spoke about the case when he was campaigning for president in 2012.
“It makes a superficially appealing talking point if you’re willing to make up things,” he continued. “It’s understandable that they go out of their way to say we’re threatening to send students to jail if they say Jesus. That sounds better than what they actually want, which is government-sponsored Christian prayer.”