- NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a speech in February at a Christian ministry’s fundraising dinner, which advertised $10,000-a-table sponsorships.
- NASA said Bridenstine was approved to attend the event in his official capacity.
- Bridenstine expressed his support for the ministry and its mission, saying he likes the idea of "institutional" but not "influential" separation of church and state.
- Some government-ethics experts said Bridenstine’s speech ran afoul of the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
- But a representative of a Christian nonprofit said Bridenstine "didn’t cross the line" because he didn’t overtly establish a government religion.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine gave a stirring speech on February 12 before a Christian ministry at the World Ag Expo in Tulare, California.
The event was a fundraiser for Capitol Ministries, a nonprofit group that aims to influence "every strata of government" with evangelical teachings of the Bible.
During his roughly 25-minute speech, large portions of which Business Insider listened to, Bridenstine contrasted the harrowing failures of NASA’s Apollo program with the agency’s ultimate success: the first crewed lunar missions. He also explained how Apollo 8 astronauts read Bible verses while orbiting the moon and described how Buzz Aldrin took Holy Communion after the Apollo 11 mission landed on the lunar surface.
This much might be expected from a NASA administrator using his position to connect with a religious audience. Former heads of the space agency occasionally took a similar approach.
But some ethics and legal experts outside NASA have expressed concern over Bridenstine’s speech. They believe it ran afoul of the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which outlines a separation of church and state, and might have also violated ethics rules for federal executives.
At issue are portions of Bridenstine’s speech that these experts claim endorse Capitol Ministries and its religious message. Toward the end of his talk, for example, the NASA administrator echoed words that the group’s founder, Ralph Drollinger, had said in a previous speech.
"I love what Ralph said earlier: We’re not trying to Christianize the US government. We believe in an institutional separation, but we also believe in influence," Bridenstine said. "And that’s a big distinction and an important distinction, and that’s why I love this ministry."
According to Craig Holman, a government-ethics lobbyist at the nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization Public Citizen, that statement is "a fairly obvious endorsement of a specific religion and a specific church."
If Bridenstine had made these and other statements as a private citizen, Holman said, he’d have no objection. But Business Insider confirmed with NASA that Bridenstine was speaking officially as the agency’s administrator, a top-level representative of the US government. Because of this, Holman said, the statements constitute "federal resources being spent to promote a specific church" — and that, he and others argue, is unconstitutional.
Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel at the group Citizens for Responsible Ethics, said Bridenstine might have also violated sections of the executive branch’s standards of conduct.
"One’s personal beliefs must be respected, but when appearing in an official capacity, you have to adhere to certain ethical standards," Canter, who worked as a US government-ethics official for more than 20 years, told Business Insider. "One is not to give the impression that you are officially endorsing any products or service or enterprise."
But some advocates for religious freedom disagree, arguing that the Constitution allows federal officials to freely express their religious beliefs as long as they do not overtly try to establish a government religion.
‘We’re not trying to Christianize America’
On its website, Capitol Ministries says nine of 15 members in President Donald Trump’s cabinet are sponsors of the ministry’s Bible studies. In his speech, Bridenstine called Capitol Ministries’ work "critically important" for "the members of this administration."
The portion of Drollinger’s speech to which Bridenstine referred, in context, was this:
"Now we’re not trying to Christianize America — I know that the secular media often says, ‘Yeah, Ralph’s a Christian nationalist — he’s trying to change America into a theocracy.’ We believe in an institutional separation, but we don’t believe in influential separation. So we’re all about trying to influence believers and unbelievers with the gospel of Jesus Christ. We could not change our political democratic structure as it now stands. And when you meet with the cabinet members every week at Bible study, they get suspicious of you. So be praying in that regard: That our ministries, not only overseas, but in America, in our state capitals, as well as in local government will all continue to grow."
In addition to highlighting the idea of "institutional separation" without "influential separation," Bridenstine said he disagreed with the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2002 decision that requiring a student to say "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. In that case (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow), the court decided the words violated the establishment clause in the First Amendment.
Bridenstine said the case for keeping "under God" in the pledge was lost because lawyers defending its use "did not make the argument" that removing it would, in his view, establish that "our national religion is atheism." (The US Supreme Court reversed the decision in 2004 on a procedural matter.)
"I can tell you as a former member of the House of Representatives that there are all kinds of incentives to have the right people do the wrong thing," Bridenstine said. "They are all over Washington, DC."
He added: "The question is this: How do we get the right people to do the right thing? The way to do that is you look inside your heart and you spend time with like-minded believers in the scripture and praying and looking really for who you are.
"I am a beneficiary of this ministry, and so are so many others in Washington, DC — both when I was in the House, and, of course, now being a part of the administration," Bridenstine said in his speech. "Thank you all for what you do, because this ministry is important for our country. God bless you."
‘This is not permissible’
The establishment clause says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." And it "prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another," according to Cornell Law School.
Bob Jacobs, NASA’s deputy administrator for communications, confirmed that Bridenstine attended Capitol Ministries’ dinner in his official capacity and received clearance to do so from the agency’s Office of General Counsel. He said the office usually does not review the content of speeches.
Holman said this official distinction is precisely the reason he believes the speech "runs afoul of the establishment clause."
"This is not permissible," Holman said. "If he had done it in a private capacity, it would have been OK. He could have said whatever he wanted. But it began as an official speech. Had he mentioned other religions every once in a while, it would have been OK. But toward the end of his speech he really promoted a specific church."
Holman said he sees the incident as part of "the ongoing abuses of public office by Trump appointees."
The White House declined to comment on this and other information in this story.
Federal officials routinely attend nonsecular events. Jacobs said "it is not unusual for the NASA administrator to be invited to and speak to religious organizations," but he added that administrators "still have to meet the standards of ethical conduct and employees have to act impartially and not give preferential treatment to any private organization or individual."
Ryan Jayne, a staff attorney with the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates church-state separation, told Business Insider that Bridenstine’s speech struck him as "really alarming."
"It appears Bridenstine has been convinced that the government promoting religion generally, or even promoting Christianity in particular, is acceptable. This is inaccurate and subjects NASA to legal liability," Jayne said. "He’s specifically saying, ‘This ministry is having a major influence in my decision-making as a government administrator.’"
Speeches at fundraisers come with ‘trip wires’
Flyers and emails that Capitol Ministries distributed ahead of the event at which Bridenstine spoke advertised packages ranging from $125-per-plate tickets to $10,000-per-table sponsorships with a VIP "meet-and-greet." The marketing materials advertised the attendance of "NASA Director" Jim Bridenstine.
Government officials’ speeches at such fundraisers often "raise red flags" for government lawyers because of the increased potential for violating ethics rules, Canter said.
"Speeches at fundraising events are one of the most sensitive types of speeches you can give. … There are all these trip wires," Canter said. "You also can’t be using it as a vehicle to officially promote or endorse the particular entity. This speech certainly gets close to the line if it doesn’t cross the line."
In the portions of Bridenstine’s speech heard by Business Insider, the administrator did not instruct the audience to donate money or other resources to Capitol Ministries. Doing so would have violated ethics rules that deal with federal employees’ use of office for private gain (including endorsement) and fundraising activities.
Canter said "everyone is entitled to their personal beliefs," but because NASA authorized Bridenstine to give an official speech, some of the comments he made "could be read by some as an endorsement — as a government official’s endorsement — of this particular ministry."
Given Bridenstine’s former job as a congressman, for whom some ethics rules are different and often more lax (overt fundraising for nonprofits is permitted), it’s possible that any transgression — perceived or real — was accidental.
"He may have just gotten carried away with his remarks, but he’s the head of an agency. He’s the head of NASA, speaking as an official. With that privilege comes a responsibility to comply with the ethics rules," Canter said.
Business Insider asked Bridenstine for comment via a NASA representative, but the agency did not provide a statement from its administrator.
‘He didn’t cross the line’
Capitol Ministries said Bridenstine was simply sharing his Christian faith at the dinner, calling it "hardly unusual," given the long history of public officials expressing their beliefs.
"The First Amendment protects such speech, and nothing in Mr. Bridenstine’s words ‘established’ a government religion or suggested that citizens would be compelled to participate in religion in any way," Capitol Ministries said in an email, adding that its goal "is working to reach the hearts of individuals for Christ within existing government systems and without treasonous desires or plans to change their structures."
Capitol Ministries put Business Insider in touch with John Bursch, the vice president of appellate advocacy at Alliance Defending Freedom. (The nonprofit group describes its work as defending "religious freedom, sanctity of life, and marriage and family," and it has litigated court cases against what its founder has called "the homosexual agenda.")
Bursch said Bridenstine made no foul with his speech, citing the "no religious test" clause in the Constitution.
"Someone can speak in public office as a Christian, evangelize as a Christian, et cetera, so long as they don’t cross the line and try to make the agency a religious entity that compels or coerces others to have the same beliefs," Bursch said. "Was it close to the line? Maybe. But he didn’t cross the line."
But Jayne contends that any comments about Bridenstine’s rights as a private individual "are beside the point because anything he’s saying in this speech is being said on behalf of NASA."
He added, "small establishment-clause violations that go unchallenged can become the justification for bigger violations down the road."
What happens when a federal official ‘steps in it’
It’s unclear whether the government will investigate Bridenstine’s speech.
Speaking generally about NASA’s ethics procedures, though, Jacobs said avenues exist for complaints to be filed anonymously. (Holman said he thinks the Inspector General would likely find violations of the establishment clause in Bridenstine’s speech.)
Jacobs added there is "nothing that prohibits the administrator from sharing his personal story, his past experiences, and other facts about himself during a speech" and that "Jim often refers to his military service, his time leading the science museum, his time in Congress, his family, and his faith."
Although Jacobs said he has seen employees "step in it" during his years at NASA, it’s often an accident.
"I don’t think anyone goes into something thinking that they’re doing bad," Jacobs said. "But we’ve had instances where people have mistakenly used their official email address to send out emails for fundraisers, for either causes or political activities. And of course that’s a no-no, and we’ll go back and make sure that they don’t do that anymore."
When government-agency heads are found to violate rules, Canter said, "it’s normally the president who would impose that disciplinary action." But she added that Trump’s reaction to similar situations in the past suggests that if he were faced with that choice about Bridenstine’s speech, he might simply let it go.
Regardless of whether Bridenstine faces any consequences, Canter said, "it would seem that the NASA administrator would be well served by ethics officials if he was counseled on the need to avoid using his public office to endorse a private enterprise when engaging in official activities."
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