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.
RSS Feed Subscribe in Apple Podcasts



All Episodes
Now displaying: September, 2017
Sep 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 25, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sep 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sep 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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:

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

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:

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

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:

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 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

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:          

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

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:

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

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:

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

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:

“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

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:

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