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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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Now displaying: July, 2017
Jul 21, 2017

A Nevada school district has reversed a long-standing policy that allows students in Washoe County to decorate their graduation caps. Learn how this story helped facilitate religious liberty by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


A Nevada school district has reversed a long-standing policy just in time for its high school graduates to stick a feather in their cap.

Students in the Washoe County School District have, in the past, been prevented from decorating their graduation caps.  The policy prevented what we might call graduation graffiti, the inappropriate decorating of caps and gowns with vulgar language and even gang symbols.  But, in its zeal to protect the solemnity of the day, the policy prevented Native American students from decorating their cap with an eagle feather.

Native Americans attach significant spiritual meaning to eagle feathers. The district’s policy prevented Quecholi Nordwall’s older sister from wearing a feather at graduation in 2014 and he was determined to make a difference this year. 

And it looks like that’s just what happened.  With the change in policy, the school district has, in fact, opened the graduation cap to decoration once more.  The district could probably still prevent vulgar and lewd messages from appearing, but now, not only may Native American students adorn their caps with an eagle feather, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious students should be able to decorate their caps with reference to their faith. 

This is how religious liberty encourages liberty, tolerance, and diversity:  As one faith group’s religious expression is protected, it means that those of other faiths benefit as well.   

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

Jul 19, 2017

Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protect religious acts of protests outside of the Supreme Court? Learn how a U.S. District Court decided the case at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Sometimes the substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise comes literally to the steps of the Supreme Court.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently dismissed a lawsuit alleging that preventing anti-war activists from demonstrating outside the Supreme Court violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

 The activists noted in their complaint that as a “post-denominational Christian” and “Unity Christian,” their religious beliefs compel protests against war. They insist on living out their spirituality through prayer vigils and peace walks, sometimes on the Supreme Court’s steps.

Interestingly, the court never questioned the sincerity of their beliefs, no matter how odd they seem. Nevertheless, the court determined that RFRA did not protect their religious acts of protest. Why? Because the rule restricts “only one of a multitude of means by which Plaintiffs could engage in their religiously motivated activity.” According to their own words, the steps of the Supreme Court are not the only place in which to exercise their beliefs; it’s just one of the places they exercise their beliefs. So, while the rules might burden their religious exercise, it’s not a substantial burden since there are many avenues left open to their religious exercise.

RFRA provides broad protection to those who seek to exercise their religion, even when they attempt to do so in public. This case reminds us that RFRA correctly balances that right against the legitimate needs of government to govern.

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

Jul 17, 2017

Bernie Sanders questions religious beliefs of Senate nominee, Russell Vought. Learn more about Article VI of the Constitution and how it prohibits a religious test for those seeking office at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.  


Not long ago, we examined Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits the application of a religious test for office.  The point of this provision is to both prevent the exclusion of religious individuals from office and to ensure good and wise citizens of every stripe can serve the country.

Recent senate confirmation hearings brought Article VI to the national stage, raising questions of religious liberty.  Senator Bernie Sanders questioned nominee Russell Vought over an article in which he examined a passage from the Gospel of John, defending the exclusivity of Christ in salvation according to Vought’s Christian faith.  Sanders decried Vought’s conclusion that followers of other faiths, and Islam in particular, were condemned according to Vought’s explanation of the Christian faith.

I won’t debate the theological correctness of Vought’s arguments, but it’s worth noting that at the conclusion of questioning, Senator Sanders announced he would vote against Vought, not over any professional qualification, but because, “this nominee is really not someone who is what this country is supposed to be about.”

Senators can vote for or against executive nominees for nearly any reason, but for one to publicly question a nominee’s religious faith, pronounce it disagreeable, and withhold his vote expressly because of the nominee’s faith, makes me wonder if, in fact, the senator from Vermont may have created a religious test for office, in violation of the Constitution.

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

Jul 14, 2017

Former UPS employees sued the delivery service company after a supervisor put an end to their break-time prayers. Learn why it’s religious discrimination to not accommodate employees by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The folks in brown are facing a claim of religious discrimination in Minnesota. 

Former UPS employees sued the delivery service after a supervisor put an end to their break-time prayers. The package people permitted their Muslim employees to pray during their breaks at a Minneapolis facility. That worked well for a while. The employees did their work and, when afforded the same break time as anybody else, they used the time to pray.

But, then a new operations manager started and put an end to the practice, making it very clear that anyone who prayed during a break—even a break to use the restroom—would be terminated. The manager did not even disguise his discrimination. In a meeting announcing the new policy, he asked which employees wanted to pray. When those who did raised their hands, he informed them that they would all be replaced. 

Federal law requires employers to reasonably accommodate its employee’s religious beliefs. That’s what UPS did previously by letting employees use breaks to pray. There is no allegation that such a practice caused any hardship to UPS. So, for the manager of the company to reverse course and threaten termination of anyone who prayed on break is a gross violation of the law. 

Religious discrimination has no place in the workplace. Employers should respect and accommodate the religious beliefs of its employees.

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

Jul 12, 2017

Church wrongly accused of violating ‘separation of church and state’ for renting space from local school district. Learn more about religious liberty rights of churches and other houses of worship at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


A Massachusetts church is accused of violating the separation of church and state because it rents space from the local school district.

Town leaders of Southbridge, Massachusetts have raised concerns about Iglesia Casa de Destino’s rented use of a public school in its town.  The church pays the standard rate to use the school’s auditorium once per week, like many churches do across the country.  But, the church is known in the community for its conservative, religious beliefs. 

One of the town councilmen is openly questioning whether the church should have a standing agreement to use the property.  Not only is the building expensive to operate, the councilman suggested that the agreement could violate the so-called separation of church and state. 

Well, not likely.  The Supreme Court has twice upheld the practice.  A town is, of course, under no obligation to rent its facility to anyone.  But, historically, publicly owned schools have been used and rented by a variety of organizations, including churches. Once a school district decides that it will rent its facilities to the community, it would be unlawful religious discrimination to prevent churches from renting the space.  

As the Supreme Court observed in the 1981 decision of Widmar v. Vincent, “The Constitution forbids a State to enforce certain exclusions from a forum generally open to the public, even if it was not required to create the forum in the first place.”

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

Jul 10, 2017

The Supreme Court has indicated that it wants to consider whether people of faith who operate a business will be welcomed to the public square or driven from it. Learn more by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Supreme Court has announced that it will hear the appeal of Masterpiece Cakeshop. You are probably familiar with at least the broad outline of the facts. A baker is approached to create a product that communicates a message he has a moral objection to creating. It is, unfortunately an all too familiar refrain these days. It’s threat to religious freedom and the freedom of speech should be obvious.

Our constitution guarantees the rights of free exercise of religion and free speech for every American. By granting review of Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Supreme Court of the United States has indicated that it wants to consider whether people of faith who operate a business will be welcomed to the public square or driven from it.

Americans want a diverse public square that tolerates a variety of beliefs and opinions. We hope the Supreme Court will use this opportunity to protect people like First Liberty clients, Aaron and Melissa Klein, who have been forced out of business, penalized $135,000 and even had a gag order issued against them—all because the State of Oregon would not tolerate them operating their business according to their religious conscience.

No one should lose their livelihood because the government disagrees with their religious beliefs. Let’s hope the Supreme Court makes that abundantly clear.

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


Jul 7, 2017

The vote in Trinity Lutheran was 7-2, meaning, seven justices agreed that the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts accurately represents the law, while two disagree. Learn what their opinions mean for religious liberty by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Before moving on to other topics, I wanted to point out something that may have slipped past your attention in evaluating the Trinity Lutheran decision: the numbers. Specifically, the numbers 9, 7, 2, and 3.

There are nine members of the Supreme Court of the United States. Sometimes they are divided by ideology: liberal, conservative, or moderate. But, at the end of the day, each member of the court gets one vote.

The vote in Trinity Lutheran was 7-2, meaning, seven justices agreed that the opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts accurately represents the law, while two disagree. If we break those numbers down, we see that joining Chief Justice Roberts were Justices Breyer, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Two justices dissented: Justice Sotomayor and Justice Ginsburg.

There were also three concurring opinions. Justice Thomas notes that he agrees with the court’s analysis, but disagrees with one of the cases used to support the conclusion of the court. Justice Gorsuch wrote to explain that the majority makes an unnecessary distinction between religious status and use. Justice Breyer uses his concurrence to suggest that “Public benefits come in many shapes and sizes,” so perhaps the majority opinion shouldn’t be limited just to playgrounds. 

But, the numbers don’t lie: seven justices agree that the state may, in some fashion, provide funds to religious organizations without violating the constitution.

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

Jul 5, 2017

The Supreme Court rejected status-based discrimination against religious organizations in its recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer opinion, but not all the justices see eye-to-eye. Learn what the dissenting Justices said by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Supreme Court rejected status-based discrimination against religious organizations in its recent Trinity Lutheran v. Comer opinion, but not all the justices see eye-to-eye.

As we have discussed, seven justices agreed with Chief Justice Robert’s opinion, making it the majority opinion of the court. Three justices qualified that agreement in concurring opinions. Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, penned a lengthy, sometimes heated, dissent, criticizing the majority opinion.

Justice Sotomayor reviews language from Trinity Lutheran’s website, highlighting its clear religious mission. She argues that, even if it’s a playground here, it cannot dislodge the conclusion that a state is funding a religious, rather than a secular, organization. The majority opinion, she maintains, “permits direct subsidies for religious indoctrination . . . [and] favors religious groups” as they compete for public dollars. 

For the dissenting justices, then, allowing a state to fund any organization that has a religious purpose may violate the Constitution. She concludes, “The Court today blinds itself to the outcome this history requires and leads us instead to a place where separation of church and state is a constitutional slogan, not a constitutional commitment.” 

That very well may be, but then again, perhaps that’s not so bad. As the majority opinion made clear, the constitution finds “odious” any notion that religious organizations can be driven from the public square based on nothing more than their religious status.

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

Jul 3, 2017

Learn how America's Founding Fathers recognized the importance of religious liberty during the Declaration of Independence. Learn more by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


 When telling the story of America, we rightly recount how the founders of our country sought to be free from something. Perhaps we ought to consider that we are also free to something.

The Pilgrims sought to be free from persecution, but were also eager to be free to practice their faith in peace. 

The Declaration of Independence lists a litany of “injuries and usurpations” from which we sought to be free from, but also declared precisely what we are free to: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” to name an essential few.

 From the early colonists to the Founding Fathers to the diverse faiths of our neighbors—each benefit from a national commitment to religious liberty that tolerates the free exercise of religion by all peaceful Americans.

The American commitment to liberty recognizes that freedom grows when none are required to hide who they really are in the free exercise of religion. We are less free when religion is banished from public, hidden from view, or treated with contempt.

As we celebrate our Independence on this the Fourth of July, let us remember that our forefathers paid a high price for our liberty – not merely the right to be free from oppression, but to be free to speak openly, exercise our faith, and live our lives according to our most deeply cherished beliefs. That is liberty.

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

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