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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 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.

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.

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