First Liberty Briefing

First Liberty Briefing is an exclusive podcast hosted by First Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys. In about 90-seconds, three times a week, Jeremy recalls the stories that have shaped America’s religious liberty, from the founding era to current legal battles and more. It’s an insider’s look at the stories, cases, people, and laws that have made America the world’s leader in protecting religious liberty.
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Now displaying: November, 2017
Nov 29, 2017

After five years, a group of high school cheerleaders won their case in court after being told they could not put Bible versus on break through football banners. Learn more at

It was Friday night and the lights in Texas shone down on the field. The Kountze High School football team was about to smash through a banner and onto the field.

Holding the banner were the Kountze High School cheerleaders. Negative slogans like “Beat the bulldogs” were a thing of the past. These cheerleaders wanted to be positive. So, they looked to the Bible for a positive message they could communicate instead.

But, the school said the new banner message had to go. They had received a complaint and could not afford to take any chances. But, the cheerleaders were not about to give up.

First Liberty Institute stepped in and, for the next 5 years, represented the young women. The school argued that since the banner was on school property, the message—chosen entirely by the students and displayed on paper the student purchased and painted—was government speech and that couldn’t be religious without violating the constitution.

The court disagreed. No reasonable person would conclude that the message—scrawled in student script and held aloft by students—could be an official message of the state. Instead, the student’s message was private speech, entitled to the protections of the First Amendment.

Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District stands for the important principal that schools cannot censor, ban, or claim ownership to the private religious speech of its students.

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

Nov 27, 2017

Despite most residents being unable to identify their county seal, a federal district court ruled that the county seal of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania is unconstitutional. Learn more at

Most residents of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, probably have no idea what their county seal looks like.

It has a cow, factories, a silo, an oil lamp set on two books, a courthouse, flags and bunting, and more. Recently, a federal district court reluctantly declared the seal unconstitutional because, centered in the background of it all, is a cross.

According to the court’s opinion:

“The County has not . . . legally compelled its citizens to practice and conform to Christianity, infringed on freedom of conscience, or created political conflict between the Christian Church and other religious sects. Simply put, the County of Lehigh did not intend to ‘establish’ religion or institute a County religion.”

And, so, the court concluded:

“Lehigh County’s Seal is a passive symbol that does not coerce any citizen to practice or adhere to Christianity, and does not establish a county religion. Thus, the Seal does not violate the plain text of the Establishment Clause. Nor does it establish religion in the way the drafters of the First Amendment imagined. Higher courts, however, have delineated a different mechanism by which the court must determine whether the Seal survives constitutional scrutiny. While the court may not fully agree with the test provided, the court must apply that test.”

Well, we can only hope an appeal will change that test.

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

Nov 24, 2017

A long standing ban in the Tennessee Constitution prevented ministers from seeking elected office until 1977 despite an entire Civil War being fought to protect the rights of citizenship. Learn more at

In 1796, the State of Tennessee banned an entire class of Americans from running for elected office. The state’s founders even enshrined this prohibition in the very constitution of their own state.

Perhaps by 1977, modern society would have come to its senses. After all, an entire civil war had been fought over a state’s denial of the rights of citizenship to human beings. But, evidently the state didn’t pay attention. Some rationalized that, if the state lifted the ban, these people would exercise their powers to promote one group of people over another, violating the rigorous neutrality expected of any lawmaker.

So, given the opportunity, Selma Cash Paty filed a lawsuit to prevent Paul McDaniel from running. Maybe Paty was just trailing in the polls and this was an easy way to win. Or, maybe, it was just the entrenched discrimination made infamous by the Deep South.

Either way, McDaniel, was an ordained minister of the Gospel and his position as pastor of a Baptist church in Chattanooga was enough to disqualify him from office, according to the Tennessee constitution.

But, the justices of the Supreme Court ended the almost two-centuries of discrimination when, in McDaniel v. Paty, the justices held that state constitution’s exclusion of ministers seeking elected office violated McDaniel’s free exercise rights under the First Amendment.

Well, I think we can all say “Amen” to that.

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

Nov 22, 2017

The practice of opening government meetings with prayer has been a longstanding tradition going back centuries. However, the federal courts of appeal are split over this very practice. Learn more at

Can county commissioners open their own meetings with prayer?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently prohibited Rowan County’s commissioners from opening their meetings with prayer. But, the federal courts of appeal are split over whether prayers offered by legislators at local government meetings are unconstitutional. In another one of our cases, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit approved of the same practice.

Opening government meetings with prayer is a centuries-old tradition that goes back to before the founding of our nation and continues to this day before Congress, statehouses, and thousands of local governments across the country. It shouldn’t be very controversial.

The Supreme Court previously approved of the long-standing tradition of “legislative prayer” and its role in solemnizing policymaking sessions, encouraging lawmakers to selflessly seek the greater good, and acknowledging the role that faith plays in the lives of millions of Americans. In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers and then again in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court held that prayers offered by private citizens before government meetings are fully consistent with the Constitution and an important part of America’s history and heritage.

But, what if that citizen is an elected official? That’s the question we hope the Supreme Court will now answer.

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

Nov 20, 2017

When the United Church of Cabot in Vermont asked voters to approve repairs to its historic church building with public funds, they agreed. However, someone raised an objection, but historic church buildings deserve repairs just as much as historic secular buildings. Learn more at

In Vermont, the United Church of Cabot needed repairs. Specifically, this historic church asked the voters to consider repairing the steeple, stairwell, along with other minor repairs.

The community uses the building for a variety of meetings and events. The taxpayers were even asked whether public funds—about $10,000—should be used to pay for these repairs. When the voters agreed to the project, someone raised an objection.

A Vermont district court enjoined the repairs, concluding that the state’s constitution categorically prohibits the public funding of houses of worship. But, the Vermont Supreme Court disagreed. In sending the case back to the lower court, it said that the “plaintiffs will have to demonstrate that painting the church building and assessing its sills is more like funding devotional training for future clergy.”

Well, that’s a difficult task. If we have learned anything from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran it is that our country’s dedication to separating church and state means neutrality toward religion, rather than hostility. If Vermont expends taxpayer dollars on other historic buildings, it is anything but neutral to refuse funding for an historic church building.

The logic that claims that anything religious must be purged from public participation simply because it is religious is simply wrong, it goes against decades of precedent, and destroys our country’s rich heritage of diversity.

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

Nov 17, 2017

One cook at a Walt Disney resort was fired because he wouldn’t cut off his dreadlocks — a key component of his religious expression as a Rastafarian. Listen at

America is home to a great diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds. Our commitment to religious liberty protects them all.

The federal government recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of a cook employed at a Walt Disney resort. The cook was fired because he would not conform to Disney’s appearance standards because doing so would require him to violate his religious beliefs.

The cook is a Rastafarian, a religious movement that began in the 1920’s and brought to prominence by singer Bob Marley. Rastafarians wear their hair in the style of dreadlocks; however, Disney doesn’t allow dreadlocks to be worn by cooks—even if those cooks keep their locks under cover while at work.

The same law that protects a Rastafarian from unfair treatment by his employer protects the rights of Jewish men to wear their beards long and Mennonite women to wear their head covering at work. As Justice Scalia explained in the case of EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch: “Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] does not demand mere neutrality with regard to religious practices…. Rather, it gives [religious employees] favored treatment…Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”

In other words, Religious liberty seeks to respect legitimate business concerns and functions, so long as those goals accommodate a mutual respect for the free exercise of religion.

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

Nov 15, 2017

Do employers have to accommodate their employees’ religious exercise? The answer at

Lois Davis worked as an IT specialist near Houston, Texas. In 2011, her county employer was working to install all new personal computers, network components, and a/v equipment. In order to complete the project, the IT staff would be required to work through the weekend of the Fourth of July.

Davis however, had a short conflict. That Sunday, July 3rd, her church was having a very special service requiring her attendance and participation. She informed her supervisor of the conflict, offered to return to the office as soon as her religious commitment was complete, and even explained that there was a ready and willing volunteer to cover the time that she would be unavailable.

Typically, employers are required to accommodate the exercise of an employee’s religion. However, employers are not required to so accommodate if doing so would cause an “undue hardship” to their business.

And that is exactly what Davis’ employer argued, but the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The court explained that it may not be an undue hardship for an employer to allow its employee 3 hours to attend a religious service—especially when that employee had arranged for a volunteer substitute to cover her responsibilities while away.

Accommodating the religion of an employee can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. Davis’ case is a good reminder that the goals of an employer need not conflict with the ability of an employee to freely exercise her religion.

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

Nov 13, 2017

When a high school graduating class was told they could not sing a rendition of the Lord’s Prayer, they stood up for their religious freedom and recited it instead. Listen now to hear about this incredible stand for religious freedom at

Every high school graduation has its own traditions. For one East Liverpool, Ohio, high school, the tradition had been for the graduates to sing a rendition of The Lord’s Prayer as part of the ceremony.

But, in 2016, a secular activist group got wind of the decades-old tradition and, for the first time in decades, complained, putting an end to the practice.

The song of the graduates was silenced, by order of the school board, but that’s not the end of the story. Toward the end of the ceremony, the graduates recited the Lord’s Prayer. It started with just a few, then more, until the entire class was on their feet quoting the Lord’s Prayer from memory.

The students were not only technically right (they had only be instructed not to sing the Lord’s Prayer), they were right on the law as well. You might call it an act of civil disobedience, but you cannot argue with the fact that it was, in fact, private speech. That is, it was the speech of the students and not, as the original complaint alleged, the official speech of the government endorsing religion.

Students should be reminded that their speech is the most protected at school and they ought never to be intimidated when speaking about their faith, whether in class or at graduation.

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

Nov 10, 2017

High school student John Raney was told that religious schools were illegal in New York. But the Equal Access Act of 1984 says something different. Find out what at

John Raney was a student at Ward Melville High School on Long Island, New York. He wanted to start a student club that would do acts of service to the community and encourage fellow students in their faith.

So, he did what the leaders of the chess club the fishing club the Frisbee club had done: he applied to form an extracurricular club at the school. But, the administrators of his high school denied the application, saying that, despite the school having 41 different student clubs, religious clubs were illegal in New York.

First Liberty, along with our volunteer attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emory, sent a demand letter to the school, explaining that the Equal Access Act of 1984 required the school to permit John’s religious club. The school quickly agreed to support John’s club.

You would think that would be the end of it, but a year later, when John went to renew his club’s application for his senior year, he was denied again. Another demand letter did the trick and John’s club was able to continue doing good for their school and for his community.

The Equal Access Act of 1984 says that a school must allow religious clubs at public schools if it offers support to secular extracurricular clubs on campus. Student religious clubs may not be treated differently by public school administrators simply because they are religious in nature.

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

Nov 8, 2017

The Florida Department of Corrections stopped accommodating inmates who kept a kosher diet because it was “too expensive.” Find out what happens at

Since the 1990’s, the Florida Department of Corrections has offered its inmates various menus, ranging from its regular fare to meatless meals and even vegan offerings. In 2004, inmates began having the option of kosher meals as well, but that stopped three years later.

That is when the Federal government decided to step in to investigate why religious inmates requesting kosher meals were being denied. Following a lengthy investigation, the United States government filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections. Incredibly, the Secretary for the Florida prisons argued that the reason Florida denied kosher meals to religious inmates was that such meals were just too expensive.

In July of 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected Florida’s denial of kosher meals to inmates. The Eleventh Circuit grounded its decision in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, sometimes called “RLUIPA,” and reminded the Florida legislature that it has a duty to ensure that its prison system was adequately funded in order to meet the religious needs of its inmates.

But why so much fuss about the religious liberty of criminals? The reason we bother protecting the religious liberty of inmates is very simple: religious liberty is a right endowed to us by our Creator; it is a right common and connected to our humanity. Though felons forfeit much liberty in the penal system, they do not forfeit their humanity.

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

Nov 6, 2017

Does a sign pointing out directions to a church violate the First Amendment? This court said no. Find out why at

Along the side of the road in the Pennsylvania town of Shickshinny Borough is a small sign. On the sign, appear the words, “Bible Baptist Church Welcomes You…one block” and it features a Bible, a cross, and an arrow pointing in the direction of the church.

The sign has been on the side of the road since 2008 when the city council approved its placement, at the cost of the church, replacing a sign there sign that had been standing nearby since the 1980’s.

The individual complaining about the sign was the lone vote on the city council against its placement when that council approved its placement. She also happens to be able to see the sign from her home. She filed this lawsuit four years after the sign was erected alleging that the sign was a religious sign and, since the city council approved of its placement and permitted it to reside on the side of the road, the town was violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The court agreed that the sign was a religious sign, but it dismissed the lawsuit anyway. The court said that no reasonable observer could conclude that a sign pointing out the direction to a church building could be the government’s way of establishing a religion in violation of the First Amendment.

Rather, to quote the court, “A reasonable observer would think it is a sign to a church and nothing more.”

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

Nov 3, 2017

Justice Alito is a proven defender of religious liberty. You may recall he authored the court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, protecting the religious consciences of family-owned businesses. Learn how he’s challenging Americans to protect religious liberty at

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito recently gave remarks to a group in New Jersey. His 45-minute presentation proved to be quite sobering.

Justice Alito is a proven defender of religious liberty. You may recall he authored the court’s opinion in Hobby Lobby, protecting the religious consciences of family-owned businesses. In other opinions, he has warned of the impact the sexual revolution may inflict upon the religious liberty of Americans.

In his latest remarks, however, Justice Alito told the audience, “You don’t need to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. A wind is picking up that is hostile to those with traditional moral beliefs.”

But, the good justice ended with a word of caution and challenge. He said, “We are likely to see pitched battles in courts and Congress, state legislatures and town halls. But the most important fight is for the hearts and minds of our fellow Americans. It is up to all of us to evangelize our fellow Americans about the issue of religious freedom.”

That’s where you and I come in. Freedom—and especially religious freedom—is not a given in human history. It is something each generation must renew for itself. Telling the story of religious liberty, and its blessings, to one another is part of our responsibility as Americans. It’s also how we preserve liberty.

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

Nov 1, 2017

A Tennessee Governor has recently signed into law a measure protecting the religious liberty of Tennessee’s student-athletes. Find more about this law at

Governor Bill Haslam of Tennessee has signed into law a measure protecting the religious liberty of Tennessee’s student athletes.

The new law allows parents to opt their students out of participation in an athletic contest “if the event is on an official school holiday, observed day of worship, or religious holiday.” Moreover, it sets the authority aright by explaining that school officials “may not require a student to attend an athletic event” over the parent’s objection.

Some wonder how necessary such a measure is. They argue that schools already respect the religious choices of student-athletes and do not punish those students who, for religious reasons, sit out of scheduled contests.

That, I suppose, is a debate for the ages. Whether athletes should participate on holy days is not a new issue, just watch the classic movie Chariots of Fire as but one example. Nonetheless, it is good to see the State of Tennessee explicitly stating that its school districts should be mindful that there are things to be respected of higher importance than sports.

Athletics can teach students much about life, diligence, and teamwork. But, life-balance is a critical element taught by sports in school as well. Today’s student-athletes are tomorrow’s business leaders who may be required to accommodate the religious practices of employees. Let us hope they learn the delicate balance of freedom well.

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