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First Liberty Briefing

First Liberty Briefing is an exclusive podcast hosted by First Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys. In about 90-seconds, three times a week, Jeremy recalls the stories that have shaped America’s religious liberty, from the founding era to current legal battles and more. It’s an insider’s look at the stories, cases, people, and laws that have made America the world’s leader in protecting religious liberty.
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Oct 23, 2017

When Phelan Moonsong, a 56-year old pagan priest wanted to wear his goat horns in his driver’s license picture the DMV had to accommodate his religious practice. Not all religious liberty accommodations are a like, and if we protect the religious liberty of one, we must protect it for all. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing 


Phelan Moonsong doesn’t leave the house without his horns on. You heard that right, Moonsong, a 56-year-old pagan priest wears a pair of goat horns wherever he goes.

Aside from the curious looks at the supermarket, Moonsong’s horns didn’t usually present a problem. That is, until he went to the DMV.

Evidently, the folks at the local DMV didn’t recognize Moonsong’s horns as a part of his religious practice. They wouldn’t let him wear them for his driver’s license picture.

“As a practicing Pagan minister and a priest of Pan,” Moonsong told the Washington Post, “I’ve come to feel very attached to the horns, and they’ve become a part of me and part of my spirituality.”

Soon after news of Moonsong’s goat horns reached a DMV supervisor, an exception was found and he was able to have his picture taken—goat horns and all. An exception for goat horns is the same religious exception most DMV’s use for other religious head coverings, whether they be Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans, Mennonite Bonnets, or even pasta strainers sometimes worn by members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

It may seem strange to accommodate a man’s religious practice of wearing goat horns in his driver’s license photo, but no one ever said religious liberty would be routine.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 20, 2017

Father Joseph Lafleur served the Army Air Corps as a chaplain during World War II and helped bring wounded soldiers to safety. For his bravery and service, the Army Air Corp awarded Lafleur the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross. Learn how Chaplain Lafleur helped other soldiers even under attack at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Father Joseph Lafleur served the Army Air Corps as a chaplain during World War II.

In 1941, Lafleur dashed about Clark Field in the Philippines amidst bombs, and flying shrapnel, pulling wounded soldiers to safety. For such bravery, the Army Air Corp awarded Chaplain Lafleur the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, and Distinguished Service Cross.

Later, while imprisoned by the Japanese for three years, he never stopped his ministry of care. He worked to meet the physical needs of his fellow prisoners, often bartering with the guards for food. Once he confronted a fellow prisoner about stealing rations from other prisoners, even landing two holy punches to pacify the unruly and unrepentant soldier.

In 1944, a US submarine torpedoed Lafleur’s prisoner transport ship. Rather than abandon ship or seek to escape Japanese gunfire and grenades lobbed his direction, the chaplain worked to calm his men and help them find an escape passage. Chaplain Lafleur died as he lived: in faithful service to his fellow man.

Motivated by faith to care for their fellow man, chaplains in our nation’s service routinely steady our servicemen and women before, during, and after battle. Military chaplains navigate the evils of war to bring good to our military.

We honor Chaplain Lafleur—and all chaplains—for their dedication to the souls of our armed forces.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 18, 2017

A Satanist was imprisoned and fined after defacing a Jewish academy’s religious objects. But he didn’t understand one important truth about religious freedom. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Welcome to the First Liberty Briefing. I’m Jeremy Dys.

The students and faculty of the Margolin Hebrew Academy were staying overnight at the Doubletree Hotel in Jackson, Mississippi en route to Gatlinburg, Tennesee. While there, they used a meeting room at the hotel to conduct their Sabbath worship service. A Torah, religious books, and musical instruments were left in the meeting room overnight with the intention of continuing with their worship the following morning.

Justin Baker, a self-professed anti-Christian, anti-Semitic Satanist, was a security guard at the hotel that night and he discovered the religious objects. He spat on the Torah and defaced the books with profanity and phrases including “Hail Satan.”

Baker was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for his religious discrimination and required to pay $9,999.99 in restitution damages. And, I somehow doubt he’s employed today as a security guard.

Baker may have been tempted to use religious liberty in a perverse attempt to justify his wicked actions, suggesting his adherence to the religion of Satanism motivated his actions. He would be wrong. Religious liberty is not a free pass to do what one likes. It is itself restrained for the good of religion as a whole and the dignity of the person. But, the principals of religious liberty never sanction destroying the property of another.

Rather, religious liberty demands that we respect the religions with which we may disagree. When we break that societal, social compact and deny others the freedom to exercise their religion, it is proper for the authorities to enforce the penalties of the law.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 16, 2017

In one of the jails in North Carolina, three Jewish inmates requested permission to meet in a private room to pray and study the Torah. However, they were denied because they had less than ten people to participate, even though inmates of other faiths were permitted to meet and study their religious texts. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


The North Carolina Department of Public Safety housed Danny Loren, aka, Israel Ben-Levi, in one of their jails.

In 2012, Ben-Levi requested permission to meet in a private room with two of his fellow inmates for about an hour each week to pray and study the Torah. That request was denied because the jail administration determined that his group was too small. Inmates meeting for worship without a rabbi or volunteer chaplain had to have a quorum of at least 10 prisoners.

Other religious groups of inmates met with fewer then 10 inmates or having a volunteer supervise them. Only the Orthodox Jewish inmates—all three of them—were denied a meeting opportunity without a rabbi.

He filed a federal lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit concluded there was no substantial burden placed upon the free exercise of his religion. And the Supreme Court denied review his case.

Justice Alito, however, dissented from that denial. He said that there was no “indication that a Jewish study group is more likely than a Christian or Muslim group to impede order, compromise inmate relationships, or absorb personnel resources.”

Not every claim asserted under RLUIPA is an automatic winner. But, at least this important law protecting religious liberty gave him his day in court.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 13, 2017

When a Elementary school started treating the Good News Club, a chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship, differently from the other after school clubs and programs, the Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged the school’s decision. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Have you ever been concerned when you heard someone praying? Sandra McDonald was.

She was the new site coordinator for Jenny Lind Elementary school and responsible for the after-school use of the school building by groups from the community.

Child Evangelism Fellowship had a chapter of its Good News Club meeting at the school. McDonald happened by one day and was “concerned about the religious content of the . . . clubs after overhearing a prayer and reference to Jesus Christ during a . . . meeting.” Ultimately, the club was told that it would be removed from the after-school lineup of club offerings. It would still be able to meet, but the school would no longer provide the same transportation and food services that it provided for the Boy and Girl Scouts, Big Brother/Big Sister, and other clubs meeting at the same time.

Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged that decision and, in Child Evangelism Fellowship of MN v. Minneapolis Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that the school had been unlawfully hostile to a religious club, but favorable to similarly situated secular clubs, when it should’ve been neutral toward all clubs.

School districts should not be concerned when religious clubs act like religious clubs. And, it violates the constitution to treat them differently from other clubs.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 11, 2017

The Oklahoma Secondary School Athletic Association (OSSAA) regulates high school sports, allowing public schools membership free of charge while requiring private schools to apply. In 1998 and 1999 the Christian Heritage Academy applied for membership and was denied. The school filed a lawsuit alleging a violation of the First Amendment. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


It’s fair to say that the State of Oklahoma takes high schools sports pretty seriously. The Oklahoma Secondary School Athletic Association, or OSSAA, regulates high school sports. Public schools are admitted freely, but private schools must apply for membership.

In 1998, Christian Heritage Academy, known widely for its 8-man football team, applied to be a member of OSSAA, but were denied. They applied again in 1999, but the majority of members rejected them a second time. That was enough for them and the school filed a lawsuit in 2003 alleging that they had been denied the equal protection of the law and deprived of their First Amendment freedoms.

The court concluded that OSSAA’s rules were discriminatory. By stating that a majority of members could simply reject religious schools over secular schools for any reason or none at all, the court found there was no legitimate purpose served. OSSAA members could, the court noted, reject applications for membership “for any reason, including dislike or distrust.”

Of course, the court was willing to allow OSSAA to chart its own membership, but it had to be fair. Creating a system that allowed ample room for members to reject religious schools just because they did not like them was not enough.

The court’s point is clear: the First Amendment requires precision. When the state acts without precision, rights can be quickly abused.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 9, 2017

When a lone Jewish Sailor aboard a U.S. Naval vessel reached out and asked for help in celebrating the Jewish High Holy Days in 1956, the Navy and Army made it happen. The celebrating of the Holy Days that year was made possible, high above the artic circle thanks to the United States military. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


It was September 1956 and Elihu Schimmel was cold and lonely. He was stationed aboard a U.S. Naval vessel above the arctic circle. His location would account for his being cold, but he didn’t think there was much to be done about his loneliness.

Rosh Hashanah was set to begin and, aside from another Jewish sailor, Schimmel was several friends short of a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jewish men necessary for services. But, Schimmel knew there were others scattered about the fleet in the coldest theater of the Cold War.

He decided to ask the powers that be if they would help. The Navy, and the Army hitching a ride, enthusiastically agreed. The order went out that those wishing to join Schimmel aboard ship would be transported—by seaplane, launch, or helicopter—for the observance of the Jewish High Holy Days.

When the time came, 10 Jewish service men showed up—exactly enough. The Navy went further, announcing at sunset that the services were about to begin and ordering all aboard to show reverence by putting out their cigarettes.

Schimmel served out his time as a naval medical officer, but he would never forget that celebration, high above the Arctic Circle, made possible courtesy of the United States military.

And, we now won’t forget how the United States military honored the religious liberty of its service members.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 6, 2017

To most people, a pay raise suggests the recognition of hard work and appreciation from your company. However, after organizing his fellow law professors into a union, Sheldon Gelman lost committee appointments and soon his wife, Jean Lifter, was fired. Gelman received a raise, but the number caught everyone’s attention. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


You probably have a similar opinion about pay raises that Sheldon Gelman and Jean Lifter did: they’re symbolic. Do a good job, and an increase in pay suggests that the company is grateful for the effort.

Gelman and Lifter were law professors at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Gelman organized his fellow law professors into a union with the support of Lifter, his wife, and over the objections of management. The next Spring, the faculty, Gelman included, received a pay raise, but Gelman lost some committee appointments and, soon after, Lifter was terminated altogether.

One wouldn’t think much of it, but the dollar amount on the pay increase caught everyone’s attention. It was too intriguing to be coincidental. The newly organized union faculty received a raise of $666. Taken alongside Gelman’s loss of committee influence and Lifter’s termination, the numerals seemed to send a message. Gelman and Lifter sued alleging retaliation against a protected First Amendment freedom.

But, the Unite States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wasn’t buying it. There were simple explanations for the pay raise amounting to apocalyptic numbers. And, while Gelman’s union organizing was certainly protected by the First Amendment, there were no facts present to suggest the law school retaliated against him for doing so.

The lesson here is clear: if your paycheck shows the supposed “Mark of the Beast,” don’t assume your employer violated the First Amendment.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 4, 2017

The ministerial exception is an important tool that protects the rights of religious employers to determine who is fit to perpetuate the mission and message of a religious organization. So when Maria Nolen claimed she had been wrongly fired, the court ruled otherwise, protecting the Catholic Diocese’s right to employ whom they saw fit. Learn More: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Maria Nolen and St. Ann Catholic School had a falling out.

Nolen thinks her religious employer fired her from her job as principal of the school for speaking out against what she viewed as racial discrimination. The Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, that operates St. Ann’s, said that Nolen simply wasn’t the right person to advance their religious mission.

Nolen’s responsibilities were pretty clear. As principal, she was responsible for implementing an educational atmosphere charged with the Catholic beliefs of her employer. That included monitoring lesson plans to make sure the teaching of the church was reflected in the lessons of the classroom, leading school prayers, and organizing religious activities for the students and faculty.

The court quickly determined that there was “little doubt that Nolen’s role as principal . . . falls within the general ambit of the ministerial exception.” Although she lacked the formal title of “minister,” her role clearly conveyed the church’s message and carried out its mission. Therefore, the court could not interfere with what amounts to a decision by a religious body as to who best perpetuates its religious message and mission.

The ministerial exception is an important doctrine that protects the unique aspects of a religious employer, giving relief to religious organizations from the rigors of employment law that may hamper their unique religious mission.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Oct 2, 2017

The United States has always had a long-standing history of respecting the faith of its service members in the military. During the Spanish-American War and World War II, there are examples of the military respecting its service members’ need to honor their duty to the Creator. Learn More: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


The United States military probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the Jewish High Holy Days. Yet, thanks to our country’s dedication to religious liberty, our military has often shown its respect for the faith of its service members.

Back in 1898, during the Spanish-American War, about 5,000 Jews served in our country’s military. 4,000 of them put in for furloughs in order to attend services for the Jewish High Holidays.

By 1944, the Nazis had exterminated almost ever Jew in the French village of Verdun. A year later, 500 Jewish-American GI’s would gather in Verdun’s town square to observe Rosh Hashanah.

That same September, on the other side of the globe, B-29 crews occupied the island of Guam. For many of them, it would be their last Rosh Hashanah.   The hangar was converted to a Jewish house of worship under the direction of the commanding general for that station, himself not Jewish. Still, men of all faiths built seats, a pulpit, the Holy Ark for Scriptures, erected lighting, and even a sound system. 1,500 men would pray for “Peace to him who is far off and to him that is near.”

These are just a handful of ways in which the United States military, even during times of war, acknowledged the essence of the First Amendment: that men have a great duty to the Creator that government must respect.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 29, 2017

CBM Ministries operates a afterschool Bible Education program in Pennsylvania. To transport the students to the program they use a bus, however, one day a state trooper cited the bus driver for violating the bus safety laws. CMB Ministries filed a lawsuit, claiming the traffic law substantially burdened their religious expression. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Can you claim the First Amendment to get out of a ticket?

CBM Ministries operates a release time Bible education program in Pennsylvania. Release time allows public school students to be released during the school day for religious classes located off campus, often times at a local church. But, it’s not the release time that is at issue in this case. It’s the way the students get from school to the church.

When one of the drivers showed up at the school to pickup the kids, a state trooper noticed that the bus was not properly inspected. The trooper cited the driver for violating state law concerning school bus safety.

As you might expect, without buses to safely transport students from school to release time education and back, CBM Ministries had a problem. So, they filed a lawsuit.

The lawsuit claimed that the enforcement of school bus safety laws on CBM Ministries’ vehicles substantially burdened its religious exercise. The court acknowledged that the law may have had an incidental impact upon the ministry’s religious exercise, but it was actually entirely neutral towards religion. In other words, the law regulated school buses, whether used for religious or secular purposes. The law did not discriminate, nor was it applied in a discriminatory manner.

Religious liberty protects against laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, but it probably won’t get you out of that speeding ticket.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 27, 2017

Recent studies prove that worldwide hostility to religion is increasing, and even more alarming is that government restrictions are not the only restrictions against religion. Learn more about the urgency to protect religious freedom at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Well, the numbers are out and they don’t look good. According to the Pew Research Center, for the first time in three years, worldwide hostility to religion increased in the year 2015.

Between 2014 and 2015, those countries marked with “high” or “very high” levels of government restrictions—actual government policies and activity restricting the free exercise of the religion of its people—grew a full percentage point.

During that same time period, social hostilities increased 4%. “Social hostilities” are “acts of religious hostility by private individuals, organizations or groups in society.” So, even if the government was not hostile in terms of official policy, the private actions of its people grew significantly.

Looking at the big picture, whether its government policies or private individuals, 40% of the countries across the globe are hostile to religion.

That means that the world is inching closer to a majority of countries demonstrating hostility towards religion. Of course, we can be immediately thankful for the great many protections we possess as Americans. But, let us not be lulled into thinking that our experiment in liberty is the historical norm. Religious freedom is not something passed on from one generation to another by virtue of our DNA. It requires every generation to renew its commitment to liberty—and especially religious liberty—both here and abroad.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 25, 2017

America was founded on religious freedom and toleration, and today that is not any different. A recent poll released by the Public Research Institute revealed that the religious landscape of America is changing. However, even with this change America’s commitment to religious freedom must not fail. Learn More: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


America is known for its commitment to religious liberty. People have always fled foreign lands persecuting their faith for a safe place to exercise their religion. That’s part of the story of our founding.

For the most part, the majority religion practiced here has been Christianity. According to a recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, that may be changing.

The survey, conducted in all 50 states with more than 101,000 Americans, is called, “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” The big take away is that the religious landscape is changing in this country, especially in the under 30 crowd. There are Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist populations that are on the rise, while the Christian community—both Catholic and Protestant—appear to be shifting downward.

It’s an interesting study and worth our attention. It reminds us that the promise of the First Amendment is a promise that Americans would be free to exercise their religion, not the religion of the state. It also reminds us that religious liberty is a promise for all religions in this country.

I think that promise is a good thing. It allows for a robust debate, the opportunity to debate finer theological points, and to settle our disagreements over eternal matters peacefully and respectfully.

The bottom line is this: America’s religious landscape may change, but our commitment to religious liberty cannot.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 22, 2017

Judges on the Sixth Circuit have a lot to say about who may provide the invocation prior to a county commission meeting. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


We recently noted the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit approving the invocations presented by the commissioners of Jackson County, Michigan before their meetings. Today, I wanted you to hear the judges in their own words.

Judge Griffin, writing the opinion for the Sixth Circuit explained, “There is no support for [plaintiff's] granular view of legislative prayer.” He said, “That the prayers reflect the individual Commissioners’ religious beliefs does not mean the Jackson County Board of Commissioners is ‘endorsing’ a particular religion, Christianity or otherwise.”

Judge Sutton, concurring, wrote, “Good manners might have something to say about all of this and how it is done. So too might the Golden Rule. But the United States Constitution does not tell federal judges to hover over each town hall meeting in the country like a helicopter parent, scolding/revising/okaying the content of this legislative prayer or that one.”

Dissenting, Judge Moore wrote that the Supreme Court has approved only the “right to open its meetings with solemn and respectful prayers, which was targeted at legislators and offered by clergy or volunteers from a variety of faith traditions,” but not the practice of “government officials themselves asking the public to participate in exclusively Christian prayer.”

That’s what they think about. Now the question is: what does the Supreme Court think?

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

 

Sep 20, 2017

Even in jail the free exercise of religion is protected for all faiths. Numerous cases about inmates asserting their exercise of religion from their cells are received each week, some with more merit than others. However, no matter the circumstance, the right to freely practice and exercise religion is protected, even from a jail cell. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Each week, I get an email with a list of cases about prisoners asserting their right to the free exercise of religion. I find it fascinating that, even in jail, we protect religious liberty. Here’s just a sampling of the cases I see each week.

In Nunez v. Wertz, a Pennsylvania federal court allowed a complaint by a Muslim inmate to move forward after his complaint asserted that he had been denied the right to wear his pant legs rolled up, except during his religious services.

In Illinois, a federal court allowed an inmate to move forward with his assertion that the prison was not providing him with a diet consistent with his Native American religious beliefs.

In Gambino v. Payne, a magistrate recommended dismissing the case of an inmate converting to Judaism. Apparently, the free exercise clause was not sufficient to protect against his complaint of inadequate privacy in the showers.

Finally, a catholic inmate in California is allowed to amend his complaint, but the court dismissed his original complaint. Evidently, the court was not inclined to let him leave confinement to attend a funeral.

Some cases appear to have less merit than others. Inmates sometimes have little else to do but file lawsuits. Nonetheless, judges take complaints of the denial of religious liberty seriously—even if that denial comes from a jail cell.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

 

Sep 18, 2017

First Liberty Institute received a victory when the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the county commissioner’s invocation in Jackson County, Michigan. The court determined that there was no constitutional violation with the offering of an invocation from a county commissioner. However, a similar case in Rowan County, North Carolina received the exact opposite ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Learn more: Firstliberty.org/Briefing


Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sitting en banc affirmed the decision of a federal district court judge. That’s significant because that judge found no constitutional problem with the county commissioners of Jackson County, Michigan providing invocations on a rotating basis prior to their commission meetings.

In Jackson County, the county commissioners do what most local lawmakers do: they start their meeting with the pledge of allegiance and then have an invocation to further solemnize the occasion. But, a local activist filed a lawsuit to put an end to the practice, claiming he was offended by the invocation.

Well, the Supreme Court has twice spoken to this. Back in 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the high court gave approval to invocations before state legislative bodies. Then, in 2014, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court approved citizen-led invocations before city council meetings. Both decisions noted America’s lengthy tradition of opening public meetings with prayer.

But, the really interesting part of this story is the circuit split it creates. First Liberty also represents the county commissioners of Rowan County, North Carolina who have a very similar practice. In July, the Fourth Circuit disapproved of commissioner-led invocations.

The Supreme Court usually wants to resolve differences of opinion between circuit courts, so it might take a trip to the Supreme Court before these cases are fully resolved.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 15, 2017

Upon returning a changed man from World War I, Riley Bembry and a number of other returning soldiers erected a simple white cross, dedicating it to all who have fought and died for their country. In 2001, someone sued and a judge ordered the cross to be removed from view. Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing


Riley Bembry returned from World War I a changed man. Upon his return, this former army medic, settled in Los Angeles and became a butcher. But, the city could not contain him. He headed into the Mojave Desert and became a prospector.

By the time the Great Depression gripped the nation, other veterans of the Great War had found their way to Bembry’s cabin, each seeking to escape the emotional and physical scars left from the war. Together, in 1934, they erected a simple, seven-foot monument atop a rocky outcropping not far from Bembry’s cabin, but miles and miles from anything else. They chose a common symbol to honor war-dead: a white cross and dedicated it, “To honor the dead of all wars.”

When Bembry died in 1984, Henry Sandoz, Bembry’s close friend, began to care for the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross. In 2001, someone sued. A judge would eventually order the memorial hidden from view—literally covered with a padlocked bag—while the case was decided. First Liberty had the privilege of working with Henry Sandoz, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and others to defend that memorial. Before he was a senator, Ted Cruz volunteered his time as lead counsel on the case.

Because of Henry Sandoz, Ted Cruz, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and First Liberty, that memorial still stands today just where Bembry placed it in honor of “the dead of all wars.”

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 13, 2017

Download your free copy of the 2017 Edition of Undeniable: The Survey of Religious Hostility to Religion in America, today. First Liberty Institute has been compiling this annual report since 2012 and this years edition shows an alarming 133% increase in attacks against religion. Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing


Since 2012, First Liberty Institute has been investigating the rise in the number and severity of domestic attacks on religion. Each year, that investigation is compiled into our annual survey.

We started that survey because wherever we went, people would tell us that they didn’t think there was a genuine threat to religious liberty in our country. We call it Undeniable: The Survey of Religious Hostility to Religion in America because it makes such a compelling case.

In the past year, the total number of documented attacks on religious liberty has increased by over 15 percent. Over the past five years, we have seen an alarming 133 percent increase. Of the 1,400 cases documented in Undeniable, you will see a myriad of faiths represented: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh among others. Religious hostility in America does not discriminate.

But, there is hope. First Liberty is battling for religious freedom in court, but you can join that fight by simply educating yourself, and others, about the rights we each have and how we can preserve them.

If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to go to FirstLiberty.org today and download your own copy of the 2017 edition of Undeniable or order a free copy for your friend.

Despite the mounting hostility, First Liberty is prepared to stand against these relentless attacks for as long as it takes.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 11, 2017

In 1937, Wayman Presley raised money to erect a cross on Bald Knob. However, in 2012, Robert Sherman sued the state of Illinois for granting money to restore the cross because he found it offensive and did not want his taxpayer dollars going towards the restoration of the cross. Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing          


It all started with a postal worker, a bunch of pigs, and an old time radio show. But, it ended in court.

Back in 1937, Wayman Presley, an Illinois postal worker decided that it would be a good idea to erect a cross on Bald Knob. The fundraising was slow until Ralph Edwards interviewed Presley on the wildly popular radio show, “This is Your Life.” Myrta Clutts must’ve heard the show because she soon conceived the idea to raise and sell pigs to finish the construction. Clutts, with the help of Presley, raised $30,000 worth of pork.

So, there it stood: 111 feet of gleaming white concrete, 1,034 feet above sea level near the Bald Knob Wilderness.

But, it turns out, not everyone liked it. Robert Sherman didn’t. So, Sherman did what most don’t think to do when they disagree with an inanimate object: he sued the State of Illinois for giving out a grant to help restore the aging monument. But, his lawsuit was dismissed.

Turns out Sherman didn’t have a dog, or a pig, in the fight. Just because someone is a taxpayer is not enough connection to a case to challenge an action by the state.

Sherman v. Illinois raises an important point: just because someone is offended by something religious does not mean a lawsuit will be successful. State officials should remember that next time someone demands they purge religion from public view.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 8, 2017

Learn more about cases previously covered by First Liberty Briefing with updates on three cases including, a Muslim woman who was forced to remove her head covering; the Somali-American employees who were fired for using their break time to pray; and a New Jersey town that had previously denied approval for the construction of a Mosque. Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing


A few updates, now, on cases previously covered on the First Liberty Briefing.

First, out of California. You may recall the story of Kirsty Powell, the Muslim woman whose head covering was forcibly removed by the police. After spending the night in jail, without her head covering, Powell was allegedly traumatized. Her lawsuit prompted a change in the Long Beach Police’s policy, accommodating, when possible, those who cover their head for religious reasons. And, the city council has agreed to pay $85,000 in damages.

Next, the EEOC has found reasonable cause supporting the allegations of about 150 Somali-American employees who were fired after being denied the use of their break time to pray. The Minnesota meatpacking company will now either face a federal lawsuit, led by the federal government on behalf of the employees, or look to settle the matter quickly.

And, finally, Bernard’s Township, New Jersey has given final—and unanimous—approval to the construction of a mosque it previously had denied. That action brought an end to more than one lawsuit on the matter and years of frustration. All that is left to do is for the city’s insurer to write a check for $3.25 million to the mosque’s law firm.

Each of these cases remind us about the precarious position religious liberty holds in America, along with the certain need for its defense.

 To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 6, 2017

When the government’s interest in timbering led to the destruction of land traditionally used by Native Americans for religious purposes, the Supreme Court ruled against the Native Americans. The opinion read, “Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the [land in question did] not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.” Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing


In 1987, the Supreme Court was asked whether timbering operations within a National Park over a portion of land traditionally used for religious purposes by Native Americans violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association concluded that “Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the [land in question did] not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.”

But, not all the justices agreed. Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun, disagreed. He reasoned that the timbering in question threatened the “very existence of a Native American religion.” He concluded on a somber note, “Today, the Court holds that a federal land-use decision that promises to destroy an entire religion does not burden the practice of that faith in a manner recognized by the Free Exercise Clause . . . I find it difficult, however, to imagine conduct more insensitive to religious needs . . ..”

Thirteen years later, Congress would pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. At the least, RLUIPA would’ve required the government to demonstrate that its actions were the least restrictive in pursuit of a compelling government interest.

RLUIPA, like RFRA, insists that government actions substantially burdening the free exercise of religion receive heightened scrutiny. That protects all of our religious liberty.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 5, 2017

Universities across America display plaques recognizing donors and their generous donations as well as famous quotes of figures such as Aristotle and Plato. And yet, when Dr. Mike McCracken wanted the plaque in the new conference room that his donations had paid for to reference “God’s physical law” he was denied as the University insisted that such mention would violate the Constitution. To learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing


“To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions.” That was the inscription Dr. Mike McCracken wanted on the plaque of the new conference room, paid for by his donations to Purdue University and placed in honor of the people who inspired him the most: his parents.

But, the university rejected the language. According to their legal analysis, the inclusion of the phrase, “God’s physical laws” could be seen as an endorsement of religion, violating the Constitution.

There are dozens of plaques throughout the campus. Most identify alumni or donors. In the student center, a large display of plaques features the bronze images of past presidents and a quote of theirs. There are quotes from past graduates, like Neil Armstrong, and even plaques with quotes from Socrates and Aristotle.

So, why would the university proudly display plaques featuring quotes from astronauts, ancient philosophers, and past presidents, but refuse an alumnus wishing to honor his parents with a passing reference to “God’s laws”? Good question.

By permitting plaques to display secular quotations, but refusing religious references, the university was committing what we call viewpoint discrimination. But, after a letter pointing that out and some discussions over the phone, Purdue agreed to redo the plaque to make it clear that that reference to “God’s physical laws” was coming from Dr. McCracken and not the university.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Sep 1, 2017

Joseph Frederick claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when the school principal confiscated his “Bong hits for Jesus” sign at a broadcasting event. The case reached the Supreme Court and in Morse v. Frederick, the Court agreed with Principal Morse’s act of censorship. While school officials may have the right to censor the promotion of illegal drug use, vulgar speech, or disruptive conduct, they do not have the right to censor students’ religious expression. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


All the justices agreed about one thing: Joseph Frederick was just looking for attention.

In 2002, Frederick and his Juneau, Alaska classmates took a field trip as the Olympic Torch Relay passed through the town. Frederick had a prime spot directly across from the cameras broadcasting the event across the nation. He wanted to get on TV, so he painted a banner.

But, just as he unfurled the banner, school principal Deborah Morse caught the message that would eventually get the Supreme Court’s attention. “Bong hits for Jesus,” it read. Morse confiscated the banner and later suspended Frederick for the stunt, asserting it encouraged illegal drug use, against school policy. Frederick claimed she violated his First Amendment rights.

Ultimately, in Morse v. Frederick, the Supreme Court agreed with Principal Morse and upheld the crackdown on Frederick’s banner. Morse, acting on behalf of the state, may have censored him, but, according to the court, students cannot hide behind the First Amendment to promote illegal drug use at school.

Yet, sometimes school officials also claim the right to censor student religious expression. We remind them that while they might be able to censor on-campus expressions promoting illegal drug use, vulgar speech, or even conduct that causes a material disruption to their educational mission, school officials cannot suppress the student’s speech just because it is religious in nature.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Aug 30, 2017

An atheist group attacked Sergeant Larry Gallo and his family after they were featured in an Air Force publication highlighting their medical missions trip to Central America. The group went as far as equating their missions trip to the Crusades and demanding that the publication be removed. To learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


They were sick of a commercialized Christmas. The presents and general distraction from what they believed to be a season meant to remind us of something deeper led Larry Gallo and his family to look for something different.

So, they left behind the packages and bows to serve the less fortunate in Central America. Larry’s girls are physician’s assistants so it was natural for them to take on a medical missions role. Larry, a maintenance engineer, discovered that the kids in line needed some company. So, as his daughters provide the medicine, Larry kept the kids happy. So, what’s the problem?

Well, Larry Gallo is better known as Sergeant Larry Gallo. When the U.S. Air Force featured Gallo’s story in one of their publications, an atheist group said the article violated the First Amendment. They even alleged that Gallo’s story, “emboldens our Islamic enemies because we look like Crusaders and it enrages our Islamic allies.” They wanted the article taken down.

After a quick Internet search recently, I discovered that the article in question is still active on an Air Force website—and it should be. The Air Force should never cave to demands of censoring religion from public view. It should never punish those service members who put service over self, even outside the line of duty.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Aug 28, 2017

Two new West Point cadets have a religious objection to wearing the traditional “tar bucket” hats when on parade. They are Sikh, and wearing their turbans is an important religious observance for these men. Will the United States Army extend their religious accommodations to the parade grounds? Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Two new cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point do not want to wear the tar bucket.

If you’re not familiar with the uniform of West Point cadets, when on parade, cadets wear a plumed shako hat or, as they are commonly called, a “tar bucket.” The cadets object to wearing the hat because it would force them to remove their turban. That is a problem chiefly because the cadets are Sikh and the turban is a religious observance for the men. 

So, while the United States Army has provided accommodation for Sikh soldiers in the past, this new lawsuit questions whether that accommodation need extend to the parade grounds. And, it is an interesting question. Clearly, forcing the cadets to remove their turban would be, in the words of the cadets, “blasphemous.” Yet, there is something to the tradition and uniformity found in the military dress of our nation’s military academies. 

Congress, thankfully, has helped provide guidance in the settling of such matters. In the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Congress insists that the government identify its compelling interest and restrict the free exercise of religion in the least restrictive manner possible whenever a citizen alleges a substantial burden to his free exercise of religion. RFRA does not guarantee an outcome in any case. But, it does make the government justify its behavior.

To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

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