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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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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.

Aug 25, 2017

Every year, First Liberty presents The Phillip B. Onderdonk, Jr. Religious Liberty Award to a hero of religious liberty. This year on the stage of the 99th National Convention of The American Legion, First Liberty presented the Onderdonk Award to Senator Ted Cruz. Learn more about this prestigious award by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Every year, First Liberty presents The Phillip B. Onderdonk, Jr. Religious Liberty Award to a hero of religious liberty.

This year, on the stage of the 99th National Convention of The American Legion, First Liberty presented the Onderdonk Award to Senator Ted Cruz.

Before he was a presidential candidate or United States Senator, Ted Cruz volunteered his time as lead counsel on First Liberty cases. He was lead counsel in defense of the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross. Cruz even took the time to travel to the Mojave Desert and visit with the memorial’s caretaker as we, on behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and The American Legion, worked together successfully to keep the memorial from being torn down.

Later, Cruz would work with us to defend against the Veteran Administration’s unlawful requirement that a minister could not pray in Jesus name at the funeral of veterans.

Ted Cruz has a lengthy history of defending religious liberty—the very religious liberty that the men, honored with veteran’s memorials across the country, fought to defend.

I would encourage you to go to FirstLiberty.org/Award today to learn more about this award and see the Military Service Tribute Edition Henry Repeating Rifle that serves as the award.

Congratulations, Senator Cruz, on receiving The Phillip B. Onderdonk, Jr. Religious Liberty Award.

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

Aug 23, 2017

Orthodox Jewish residents asked their city for permission to attach small black strips or “lechis”, to set boundaries for their religious practice of the Sabbath but the city denied their request. Learn how this case affects the free exercise of religion in America by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Jewish members of the Orthodox faith cannot push or carry objects outside their home during the Sabbath. However, for two millennia throughout the entire world, their religious tradition has expanded their home area with the creation of an eruv. But, not in New Jersey.

In the Borough of Tenafly, Orthodox residents asked the city for permission to attach small black strips, called lechis, to the telephone poles in order to set the eruv boundaries. These strips are nearly identical to ordinary ground wires and certainly less noticeable from the holiday displays, signs pointing out directions to local churches, or even house numbers the city permitted on the poles on a case-by-case basis.

But, the city would not allow the eruvs. As a result, the Orthodox community was homebound. Mothers couldn’t push their babies in strollers to the synagogue. They couldn’t even carry their prayer books to the synagogue. Without court intervention, the city’s action would effectively prevent the Orthodox community from practicing their faith entirely.

Thankfully, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit realized this grave First Amendment violation. It concluded that the “government cannot discriminate between religiously motivated conduct and comparable secularly motivated conduct in a manner that devalues religious reasons for acting.”

Singling out the religious conduct of one group not only prevents the free exercise of that faith group; it damages everyone’s religious liberty.

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


Aug 21, 2017

In 1983, a Bethel High School student proudly nominated his friend for a student government position and used vulgar language while doing so. Learn what the Supreme Court said about regulating student speech and expression by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Matthew Fraser was a dedicated friend. In April of 1983, the Bethel High School student took to the stage of a school assembly to proudly nominate his friend for a student government position.

As about 600 high school students listened, he . . . well, perhaps the best way to describe his speech is to quote Justice Burger’s description of it. He wrote, “Fraser referred to his candidate in terms of an elaborate, graphic, and explicit sexual metaphor.”

Well, you can probably spot the problem. Bethel, like a lot of high schools had a policy against the use of lewd, obscene, and profane language. So, the next morning, the school informed Fraser that he had broken the rules and would be appropriately disciplined.

Fraser didn’t like that. He claimed, in a federal lawsuit, that the policy violated his First Amendment rights. But, the Supreme Court disagreed. The court explained that, while students retain First Amendment freedoms at school, school officials may still prevent vulgar and lewd speech—like Fraser’s—that undermines the educational mission of the school.

Bethel School District v. Fraser reminds us that school officials can permit student religious speech and expression without losing the ability to regulate vulgar student speech that undermines the educational mission of the school. School officials who try to censor student religious speech face an uphill battle. 

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

Aug 18, 2017

In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the public reading of the Bible in public schools. So, can the Bible be taught in public schools? Learn the answer by listening at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1963, the Supreme Court of the United States ended the public reading of the Bible in public schools.

For years, students in the School District of Abington Township listened to a student read a passage from the Bible, recite the Lord’s prayer, provide announcements, and end with everyone reciting the pledge to the American flag together. That was too much involvement by the school for the court. The court determined that neutrality had been breached and a violation of the Establishment clause had occurred. 

But, the question remains: can you teach the Bible in the public schools? The answer is yes.

At the end of the court’s opinion in Abington v. Schempp, the court noted:

“[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

So, the Bible can be taught in the schools. Exactly how is a more difficult conversation.

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

 

Aug 16, 2017

After three years of litigation, Cornerstone Church by the Bay wins their case and can use their own property to minister to the community. Learn more about how First Liberty defended this church against the south Texas city’s zoning laws by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


After three years of litigation, Cornerstone Church by the Bay wins their case and can use their own property to minister to the community.

The south Texas church, and the private school that it runs, purchased property that they hoped would allow them to leave their rented space and continue their ministry on their own property. But, the city’s zoning laws were confusing. It allowed non-religious institutions to occupy that part of town, but the zoning rules did not allow churches there. When the church asked for a special use permit, the town’s Board of Aldermen denied the request, keeping churches from operating in that area.

Left with no other option, Cornerstone turned to First Liberty. We filed a lawsuit on their behalf alleging that the town’s zoning actions violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act along with the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Not long after, the court granted our request for a preliminary injunction while the litigation continued.

But, the town has decided to quit that litigation. In settling with Cornerstone, the Town of Bayview agreed to issue the special use permit the church requested over three years ago. 

Houses of worship have legal rights that must be respected by local government officials. This church is now free to serve their community, on their own property, as every church should be.

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

Aug 14, 2017

The State of Florida has provided a religious exemption for parents who, for religious reasons, object to their children receiving immunizations. One parent invoked his exemption but did so at a private religious school. Learn what a state appellate court had to say about the case by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The topic of immunizations can be controversial to many.  Some even have a religious objection to having their children immunized as a requirement to attend public schools.

Those objections often fall on deaf ears, but some states have provided for a religious exemption for parents who, for religious reasons, object to their children receiving the needle.  Florida falls into that category. 

So, naturally, when Patrick Flynn informed his Florida school that he was invoking that exemption, he was surprised to hear the school refuse to follow the law.  So, he filed a lawsuit.

Now, there’s an important fact that I haven’t told you yet: the school is a private, Catholic school.  It’s not a public school.  As such, it is itself protected by the First Amendment to make its own policies in keeping with their faith. 

A unanimous state appellate court sided with the Catholic Diocese, citing the doctrine of church autonomy.  Siding with Flynn would “further his own religious views at the expense of the Diocese's on the topic of immunizations,” wrote the court. “We are convinced that a secular court should not be making the judgment as to which side's religious view of immunization is to be respected.”

In other words, while Flynn has a right to the protection of his religious beliefs, he may not use the state’s judicial arm to compel a private, religious institution to depart from its religious beliefs. 

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

Aug 11, 2017

The State of Florida has a new law on religious liberty. The “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” codifies much of the case law protecting religious expression in public school. Learn more about what this means for students and school employees by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


The State of Florida has a new law on religious liberty. The “Florida Student and School Personnel Religious Liberties Act” codifies much of the case law protecting religious expression in public school.

Under the new law, schools are instructed to treat voluntary student religious expression in the same way as other viewpoints being expressed. Students are given the backing of the state in their manner of religious dress. Groups of students are given the space to form student religious clubs and gather to pray, just like any other club.

School employees benefit under the law as well. The new law expressly states, “Employees may not be prevented from participating in religious activities on school grounds that are initiated by students at reasonable times prior to or after the school day.”

Finally, the law requires the Florida Department of Education to develop a model policy establishing a limited public forum at certain times for the voluntary expression of religious viewpoints by students and personnel. This provision, which is required to be adopted by each school district throughout the state, will undoubtedly provide direction for how to handle things like graduation speeches, school board meetings, and maybe even ahead of athletic contests.

There’s nothing earth-shattering in this new law, but whenever a state takes the time to codify what the courts have determined the First Amendment requires, it’s a good thing for religious liberty.

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

Aug 9, 2017

Harbor Missionary Church was required by the city of San Buenaventura, California to file for a conditional use permit in order to continue their homeless ministry. The city denied the permit without much of an explanation. Learn more about the case by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Ministry to the homeless is a difficult, often thankless task for many houses of worship. Some cities tend to make it even harder.

 Harbor Missionary Church in the city of San Buenaventura, California had what appeared to be a thriving ministry to the homeless. But San Buenaventura required the church to file for a conditional use permit in order to continue the ministry. They did and were hopeful when the city staff recommended that the permit be issued. But, the city planning commission denied the permit outright and without much of an explanation.

The church filed a lawsuit alleging that the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the church argued that the city had substantially burdened their religious exercise. In fact, without help from the Ninth Circuit, the church would be forced to sell its property and raise $1.4 million in order to relocate their homeless ministry. Thankfully, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the city had violated RLUIPA by denying the special use permit.

Zoning laws are important to local government, but they can be used to prevent the free exercise of religion as well. When they do, RLUIPA provides a check on the government’s exercise of authority against a religious organization’s religious liberty.

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

Aug 7, 2017

A case out of New York City involved activists attempting to stop Orthodox congregations from performing an ancient Jewish ritual called “kaporos”. Learn what the court affirmed during the appeal process by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


If you are a regular listener to this program, you’ve heard the term “kaporos” before. You know that First Liberty represents the Chabad of Irvine against efforts by animal rights activists trying to end their millennia-old religious tradition. 

We previously discussed a case out of New York City in which activists attempted to stop Orthodox congregations from performing this ancient Jewish ritual. Kaporos requires the participant to wave a chicken over his head while reciting a prayer that contemplates his own mortality and the redemption of his sins. The chicken is then slaughtered in Kosher fashion. 

Well, in New York City, activists complained that this posed a public health hazard. According to the complaint, feathers, blood, and chicken parts flowed in the streets, gagging passersby. But, the court rejected the complaint and refused to compel city officials to put an end to the practice.

Now, on appeal, the court has affirmed that decision, explaining: “Rituals involving animal sacrifice are present in some religions and although they may be upsetting to nonadherents of such practice, the United States Supreme Court has recognized animal sacrifice as a religious sacrament and decided that it is protected under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution.”

That’s the point of the First Amendment: to protect your right to freely exercise your religion, even if someone else finds it upsetting.

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

Aug 4, 2017

A court found that it could only make decisions based on practical and secular issues after a former Catholic school employee chose to file a discrimination lawsuit against the institution. Learn why the court affirmed the school’s right to make employment decisions by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Joanne Fratello was hired as the high school principal at St. Anthony’s School in New York.

She was efficient in carrying out the religious mission of the school. She intimately managed how the education the students received was infused with the religion of the Catholic church. She personally led prayers for the students over the loudspeaker. She even approved hymn selections and the selection of participants of annual Masses at the school.

Fratello’s supervisors found her efforts praiseworthy. They even extended her contract. We don’t quite know what happened, but Fratello was suddenly fired. Hurt and angry, Fratello filed a lawsuit, alleging discrimination.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit concluded that the school was able to claim Fratello as a minister, one who carries out the religious function of the school’s religious mission. Therefore, the ministerial exception barred her claims of employment-discrimination. 

As the court concluded, “Judges are not well positioned to determine whether ministerial employment decisions rest on practical and secular considerations [that] though perhaps difficult for a person not intimately familiar with the religion to understand, are perfectly sensible—and perhaps even necessary—in the eyes of the faithful.”

In other words, sometimes religious freedom means allowing religious organizations to be religious, even if you don’t understand their religious reasons why.

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

Aug 2, 2017

Seth Clark, a salutatorian from Akin, Illinois decided to quote the Bible in his graduation speech. A community member complained that religious content would be shared on school grounds. But there’s a neat and surprising story. Listen to how the situation turned out by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Akin, Illinois is a small town in the heartland of our country. There you will find salt-of-the-earth folks growing the crops that feed the rest of us. Everyone knows everyone, so it was no surprise when the Clark’s boy, Seth, was announced the salutatorian of his graduating grade school class.

But, when word got around that Seth was going to quote from the Bible in his speech, someone complained. That complaint reached the school board and, soon enough, Seth was told that the Constitution would not let his speech with religious content be delivered on school grounds, to a captive graduation ceremony audience. 

Well, that was that…or so it seemed.

The story has a bit of a surprise ending. A neighbor who lived across from the school offered up his front porch. So, when it came time for Seth’s speech, the audience turned around. There, on the front porch of this iconic Midwestern town was Seth Clark holding forth, giving the speech that he always wanted to give.

Perhaps you live in one of those towns where folks still stop to chat on the front stoop on a cool summer’s evening. If not, you need to know that the Constitution never requires a student’s private remarks be given on private property.

“It was the proudest moment of my life,” said Seth’s Mom. Well, I suppose it was.

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

Jul 31, 2017

Three employees decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems. They met at their colleague’s cubicle on a day that she was not even in the office. Learn more about how a court decided this case by listening to FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Evelyne Shatkin, Linda Shifflett, and Doug Maples took prayer seriously. So, seriously in fact, that they decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems.

They met at the cubicle of their colleague after work on a day that she was not even in the office. Their prayer got pretty serious. They anointed the cubicle with oil, according to Shatkin’s religious tradition. They prayed for peace and joy for their colleague. They even commanded “demons to leave” their colleague as they prayed. 

Word got back to their supervisors about the after-hours prayer meeting. After an investigation, the supervisor concluded that “the nature, the manner that they’re praying, what language they’re using” determines whether the prayer was harassment. Human resources agreed and notified the prayer-givers that they would be terminated for their harassing prayers. Shatkin and Shifflett asked for a religious accommodation for the prayers, but that was denied. They were fired.

First Liberty Institute took up their case. A federal district court sided with the employees, as it concluded, “Can a prayer for someone constitute harassment when the alleged object of the prayer is unaware of it? This court suspects not.” In fact, the court concluded that the college’s own policies protected the prayers of these employees.

Firing someone for their peaceful exercise of religion at work doesn’t have a prayer.

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

Jul 28, 2017

A small New Jersey congregation rented from a local school building until the rent increased. The twenty-five congregants couldn’t afford the new price and used Reverend Robert Cameron’s house as a new meeting place. Learn how this congregation fought all the way to the State Supreme Court against unfair zoning laws by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Robert Cameron was a minister without a home. Well, that’s not quite right. Rev. Cameron actually had a home, a house much like any other in Franklin Township, New Jersey.

Actually, Rev. Cameron, and his congregation at the Mount Carmel Reformed Episcopal Church, had no home for their church. They had been renting a local school building, but someone hiked the rent. The twenty-five congregants couldn’t afford the increase. So, they decided to meet in Rev. Cameron’s house until they could find a new meeting place.

You would think that would be uncontroversial, but town officials told him he was violating the town’s zoning laws. A judge agreed and, for the crime of holding a worship service in his home, he was given a $500 fine for every time the church would meet in his home.

Rev. Cameron didn’t give up. He appealed that decision and the Supreme Court of New Jersey acknowledged that the zoning ordinance was vague and its focus on religious activity alone led to unfair and inconsistent results. It had to go.

State v. Cameron was decided in 1981, two decades before Congress would pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Today, RLUIPA provides a critical defense for pastors, churches, and religious organizations against cities and towns that would substantially burden the free exercise of religion in the religious use of their property. 

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

Jul 26, 2017

A few months ago, First Liberty Briefing shared the story of a Rastafarian chef who was discharged from an Orlando hotel for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. There’s an update on that case and you can listen to it by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


A few months ago, I shared with you the story of a Rastafarian chef who was discharged from an Orlando hotel for refusing to cut his dreadlocks. Well, here’s an update on that case.

As you will recall, Rastafarians wear their hair in dreadlocks as part of their sincerely held religious beliefs. So, under federal law, his employer was required to accommodate his hair, unless doing so posed an undue hardship to the business itself. 

After efforts to resolve the matter failed, the EEOC brought a federal lawsuit. That prompted further settlement discussions, which resulted in the hospitality company agreeing to pay $30,000 to settle the lawsuit. The company further agreed to amend its policies and train its employees to make it clear that religious-based requests for accommodation will be provided.

Once again, this demonstrates how costly it is to deny an employee their religious liberty. And, if you’re like me, you may not have a sincerely held religious belief about how you wear your hair. But, that doesn’t matter. Sincerely held religious beliefs—even about hair—deserve the protection of the law. 

In an age of increasing complexity in the employment context, it’s important to remember that our national commitment to liberty means that we respect and, where possible, accommodate the religious beliefs of our employees—to the point that, as the late Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote, we give religious employees “favored treatment.”

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

Jul 24, 2017

In 2012, the Mt. Vernon City Council received a complaint for opening the meeting with prayer. In an effort to satisfy everyone, the prayer took place two minutes before the meeting officially started but that ultimately caused uproar. Learn more about the case at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Back in 2012, as the Mt. Vernon City Council officially gaveled in their monthly meeting, someone offered a prayer. That’s not terribly out of the ordinary. But, something was different this time. This prayer took place at 7:28. The meeting officially started at 7:30. Everyone noticed the change.

You see the city council had received a complaint from a local atheist questioning and disparaging the practice. He even told the local press, “Having a prayer of any faith creates an atmosphere of exclusion.” In response, the council took the prayer off the agenda and moved it ahead two minutes, before official business began.

No one was satisfied. To the atheist, it was still exclusionary. To the rest, it was one more capitulation of driving religion from the public square. The uproar was so great that the city council was compelled to pass a resolution restoring the prayer to the agenda. 

Well, the whole thing was avoidable. City councils have been opening their official business with prayer since our country’s beginning. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed this tradition, most recently explaining in Greece v. Galloway that legislative prayer is “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.”

In other words, cities opening their meetings with prayer are part of who we are as a country.

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

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.

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