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First Liberty Briefing

First Liberty Briefing is an exclusive podcast hosted by First Liberty Institute’s Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys. In about 90-seconds, three times a week, Jeremy recalls the stories that have shaped America’s religious liberty, from the founding era to current legal battles and more. It’s an insider’s look at the stories, cases, people, and laws that have made America the world’s leader in protecting religious liberty.
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Now displaying: January, 2018
Jan 31, 2018

Should courts make decisions on church doctrine or practices? Learn what happened to the Syrian Christian man at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


A case out of Oklahoma mixes the doctrine of church autonomy with the intrigue of a spy novel.

A Syrian man found his way to the First Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. of Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, he converted to Christianity and asked to be baptized. He was and, though he requested confidentiality, the church followed its Book of Church Order, listing the record of his baptism on the church’s website. When the man returned to Syria, he was kidnapped, tortured, and only escaped death by killing his guard and fleeing the country.

After he returned to the United States, he sued the Presbyterian church, alleging that the publication of his baptism led to his kidnap and torture.

But, the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to review the matter, citing the church autonomy doctrine. According to that doctrine, churches are free from government interference when handling its internal, religious affairs—including baptism. Since it is the practice and custom of the Presbyterian Church to publicly celebrate baptisms, the court could not adjudicate the dispute.

While churches must exercise wisdom in following its customs to avoid unnecessary danger, how a church decides matters of faith and practice is rightly beyond the reach of the judiciary to review. As the US Supreme Court said in 1952, this doctrine, “radiates a spirit of freedom for religious organizations, an independence from secular control or manipulation.”

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

Jan 29, 2018

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.

Jan 26, 2018

There is an effort in America to restrict chaplains in our military. Have you ever considered the enormous cost this could have on our armed forces? Learn about Chaplain Robert P. Taylor and the sacrifices he made for his unit FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


There is an effort in America to restrict chaplains in our military. Have you ever considered the enormous cost this could have on our armed forces?

After the Battle of Bataan, Chaplain Robert P. Taylor joined some 75,000 soldiers in the Bataan death march. Soldiers were indiscriminately shot, stabbed, and beheaded by their captors. Those who were not killed marched without food or water, driving men to drink from disease-ridden puddles. As they marched, Chaplain Taylor knew his task was to provide spiritual guidance that would increase morale, perhaps making the difference between life and death.

Once the survivors of the death march made it to a prisoner of war camp, Taylor continued his spiritual leadership. Not only did he lead daily religious services and encourage his men to remember the God who gave them strength, he found a way to smuggle much-needed food into the camp. For that, he was rewarded with 14-weeks of debilitating torture that put him in a coma.

Taylor spent 42 months in captivity. He never stopped providing spiritual care for his soldiers, something he continued in peacetime as the Air Force Chief of Chaplains. His spiritual care saved many, many lives.

Some think their cause is righteous when suing the military in hopes of ending a chaplain’s career. But, what if that chaplain is the next Robert Taylor?

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

Jan 24, 2018

A veterans memorial known as the “Big Mountain Jesus” honors World War II soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and stands tall atop Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest. But one group wanted to get rid of the memorial because of its religious nature. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


After World War II, soldiers from the Army’s 10th Mountain Division sought to honor their fallen brothers who were lost while fighting in some of the roughest terrain in Europe.

The memorial is a six-foot tall figure of Jesus in the style of religious shrines they had seen on battlefields in Europe. The Knights of Columbus in Kalispell, Montana erected this veteran’s memorial, known casually as “Big Mountain Jesus.” It stood without complaint for more than 60 years atop Big Mountain in the Flathead National Forest.

One group wanted to knock the memorial down. They sued the U.S. Forest Service for permitting its presence on top of Big Mountain. First Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the State of Montana and the roughly 2.4 million members of The American Legion. We asked the court to preserve the Tenth Mountain Division Veterans Memorial.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the memorial is constitutional. The court explained that the Constitution does not require the government to purge cultural or historic symbols from the public square merely because they are religious.

Veterans should be given wide latitude in determining how they choose to honor their fallen brothers in arms. And, if these veterans choose religious symbolism as part of their memorials, the government’s response should be one of respectful neutrality.

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

Jan 22, 2018

Peter Manseau was hired as the first curator of religion in over 100 years for the Smithsonian Institution. The curator hopes to tell the story of religion in America’s founding. To learn more about religion’s role in American history, listen at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Smithsonian Institution has appointed its first curator of religion in over 100 years.

Peter Manseau, the new curator, explains that, “You can’t tell the story of America without the role of religion in it.”

According to Manseau, among the first exhibits to be displayed will be a church bell crafted by Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson’s Bible that cut out the portions he did not believe, a manuscript from the Book of Mormon, a Muslim text that once belonged to an African slave, and even a Torah scroll damaged by Hessians during the War of Independence.

Manseau also intends to display a compass used by Roger Williams to find his way to Rhode Island when he was exiled from Massachusetts for his religious beliefs—a display Manseau hopes will help American ponder what religious liberty looked like in the context of the founding of our country.

The new curator is right: you cannot tell the story of America without telling the role religion has played in making our country what it is today. And that includes the role of religious liberty. These artifacts from our history point to the real stories of Americans committed to the historically radical idea that government respect a person’s right to honor his conscience before God.

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

Jan 19, 2018

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reviewed a case involving the Birdville Independent School District after it a humanist group sued them. The humanist group argued students should not be permitted to have an invocation at the school board meeting. Learn how the court ruled at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1997, the Birdville Independent School District welcomed two students to their meetings. One student led the Pledge of Allegiance, while the other student delivered a statement of his own choosing, according to the school’s policy of allowing student remarks. That continued for years, most often in the form of an invocation, during which the board members stood respectfully quiet with bowed head while the student prayed.

That was all well and good, until a humanist group sued, alleging that school boards aren’t legislative bodies and should not be permitted to have an invocation in the same way a state legislature, city council, or county commission does.

Eventually, the case arrived before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where a three-judge panel upheld the practice, stating, “Legislative prayers are recited for the benefit of legislative officers. It would be nonsensical to permit legislative prayers but bar the legislative officers for whom they are being primarily recited from participating in the prayers in any way.”

The fact that students undertook to lead those invocations was of minimal concern. “Although it is possible to imagine a school-board student-expression practice that offends the Establishment Clause,” the court explained, “this one, under its specific facts, does not.”

This is a routine area of challenge by secularists, but one with limited success, since the long tradition of our country is one of support for prayer at public meetings.

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

Jan 17, 2018

What does the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals say about distributing religious materials in public schools? Find out at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Ed McDaniels was a local pastor in Upshur County, West Virginia. One day, he asked the local school superintendent if he could place Bibles on a table in the local public school. He didn’t want to hand students anything; he just wanted to set out the material as a resource the students could take if they wanted to.

The school had a policy of allowing the local Little League, Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H Club, and other community organizations to set their materials on a table. Students passing by could take the material or simply ignore it. In a separate policy, the school prevented the distribution of religious and political materials. Local residents sued the school system, claiming that the policy preventing distribution of religious materials also denied McDaniels access to the community information table.

Eventually, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit determined that distributing meant physically handing out materials. In fact, the court explained that, if the school kept the Bibles off of the community information table, it would breach its duty of religious neutrality and, in the words of the court, “evince the hostility toward religious speech that the Establishment Clause does not require and that the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses forbid.”

So, look around at your school. Perhaps there’s a community information table waiting to be stocked with Bibles.

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

Jan 15, 2018

On the First Liberty Briefing this morning: This decorated Air Force Veteran was forcibly removed from a military retirement ceremony because he was going to mention ‘God!’ Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


Oscar Rodriguez is a decorated Air Force Veteran who retired in 2013 after 33 years of service. Oscar was invited by Air Force Master Sergeant Chuck Roberson to give flag-folding speech at a Roberson’s military retirement ceremony—something he has done over 100 times.

Oscar agreed to give his stirring and patriotic speech, but the Air Force Unit Commander at Chuck’s base presented a problem—Oscar’s flag-folding speech included the word “God.”

First, the unit commander tried to prevent Oscar from attending the ceremony. When he was informed that he could not legally prevent his attendance, he told Chuck that Oscar could not give the speech. But like any good Airman, Oscar was not going to abandon his wingman, and he decided to give the speech anyway. And as a private citizen, Oscar is no longer subject to the commander’s authority.

But when Oscar stood to deliver the speech during the retirement ceremony, four senior airmen approached him, assaulted him, and physically dragged him out of the retirement ceremony—before he had a chance to say the word, “God!”

The Air Force broke the law and abused its power, discriminating against Oscar—and servicemembers everywhere—who want to mention God in their private retirement ceremony.

First Liberty Institute represents Oscar because no one should be assaulted for mentioning the name of God.

For more, and to learn how First Liberty is defending religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.

Jan 12, 2018

A writer for the Tampa Bay Times is calling for First Liberty client, Cambridge Christian School to form a league of their own after the FHSAA refused to allow Christian students to pray over the loud speaker. Learn more about the case and how we’re protecting students’ religious rights at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


An editorial penned in the Tampa Bay Times has called for one of our clients to form a league of their own.

The author writes about Cambridge Christian School who earned the chance to play for a state football championship against another Christian school. Both teams asked the Florida High School Athletic Association to pray over the public address system prior to kick off. That request was denied by the FHSAA specifically because the requested speech was religious in nature.

The author supports the FHSAA. He writes: “If Cambridge and similar schools want public community prayer before their state championship games, they should leave the FHSAA and form their own private statewide Christian association and stage their own playoffs.”

Now, we were once told that if you wanted to pray in school, you should go to a private, Christian school. These students did, but now that they are there, this author would have them leave the league entirely.

Well, where does it end? Must religious picnickers form their own, private parks lest they be accused of violating the constitution for saying grace over their meal at a public park?

It was the FHSAA that engaged in religious discrimination against Cambridge Christian School. It would be an even greater offense to the Constitution’s protection of religious liberty to force these students further from public participation.

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

Jan 10, 2018

J.B. Hunt Transport conducts random drug tests for its employees by using a hair sample. However, Sikh applicants were unable to fulfill that request because of their religious beliefs. Learn how the Sikh applicants responded at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Drug testing of employees is always a source of frustration. Nonetheless, it is essential to safety in the workplace. But, does drug testing ever threaten an employee’s religious liberty?

J.B. Hunt Transport, Inc. recently found itself facing that question along with lawyers at the EEOC and The Sikh Coalition. Hunt Transport randomly tests its employees for drug use by using a hair sample. That works in most cases, but not for Sikh employees.

Sikhism requires its followers to neither shave, nor cut their hair. The simple act of plucking a hair from their head would cause Sikhs to violate their religious beliefs.

Sikh applicants to the trucking company explained their predicament, but the company denied their request for an alternative drug testing option. Ultimately, they were not hired and the employees sued alleging religious discrimination. Wisely, the company agreed to settle the matter.

Employers cannot make employment decisions based upon an employee’s religion. Further, companies have a duty to accommodate an employee’s religion so long as that can be done without undue hardship to the organization. In this case, refusing to hire someone because they would not cut their hair for a drug test is unreasonable when multiple alternative tests are at the company’s disposal.

Freedom—and especially religious freedom—demands that we do the hard work of balancing corporate safety against individual liberty.

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

Jan 8, 2018

An Amish group in Western Kentucky is claiming that the City of Auburn is targeting them with a horse manure ordinance. The question is, how should we balance religious liberty and health safety concerns in America. For more, listen at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In Western Kentucky, Amish residents have filed a lawsuit against the City of Auburn alleging one of its ordinances imposes a burden upon the free exercise of their religion.

The ordinance has been on the books for several years and dozens of Amish have been cited for violating the law. Some have paid the fine that comes with the violation; others have refused in protest.

As you may know, the Amish live simply, refusing most modern conveniences, including motor vehicles, as their religion teaches. Instead, the Amish are known for driving their horse and buggy through town. And, where there are horses, there soon follows horse manure. So, the City of Auburn passed an ordinance requiring that horses travelling through Auburn be fitted with a…well…let’s call it a manure collection system.

The Amish believe that the ordinance is specifically targeting them and is, therefore, religious discrimination.

This will be an interesting case to watch. On the one hand, the ordinance in question has exceptions, so it is probably not a law generally applicable to everyone, which makes it more likely to be found in violation of the Constitution. On the other hand, the city has a compelling justification for the ordinance: not only does manure stink, it takes a long time to degrade and transmits disease.

Either way, it’s an interesting lesson in how we balance religious liberty in America.

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

Jan 5, 2018

Government neutrality is supposed to prevent the government from favoring one form of speech over another. It does not give government officials the right to censor or scrub out all religious content from the public square. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


You may often hear me say that the First Amendment requires government agencies to be neutral toward private, religious speech. But, what does that mean?

Some take the position that when the speech of a private person or organization enters a public forum, the government must ensure that all speech within such a forum be neutral, censored and scrubbed of any religious content. But, that is not neutrality and, when a government does that, it violates the First Amendment.

Neutrality actually means that the government will neither favor, nor disfavor particular viewpoints expressed in speech. It means that the government will not promote a particular point of view, nor censor it. It means that government respects the speech of its citizens, allowing the exchange of ideas through divergent viewpoints, even those viewpoints with which those sitting in government may disagree.

So, if a school district has a flyer distribution program that allows local organizations to distribute information to the parents of its students, it is not required to make sure those flyers present a neutral message. The school board wouldn’t be neutral if it did. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, “speech discussing otherwise permissible subjects cannot be excluded from a limited public forum on the ground that the subject is discussed from a religious viewpoint.”

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

Jan 3, 2018

After over ninety years of peaceful silence, the Bladensburg World War I Memorial is in jeopardy of being torn down because of it’s cross-like shape. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1919, American mothers who lost their sons in World War I set about developing a war memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland. And, there it has stood in peaceful silence for over ninety years, a visible reminder of the cost of freedom.

But, in October of 2017, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reasoned that, because these mothers chose to memorialize their sons with a cross-shaped monument reminiscent of the grave markers of the thousands of American soldiers buried across Europe, the monument violates the Constitution.

Not all the judges agreed. Chief Judge Gregory issued a strong dissent reminding the court that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not require the government to purge any reference to religion from the public square. He concluded:

“This Memorial stands in witness to the VALOR, ENDURANCE, COURAGE, and DEVOTION of the forty-nine residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland ‘who lost their lives in the Great War for the liberty of the world.’ I cannot agree that a monument so conceived and dedicated and that bears such witness violates the letter or spirit of the very Constitution these heroes died to defend.”

We agree with Judge Gregory. This is a Veterans Memorial. We will not break faith with the Gold Star mothers and The American Legion veterans who chose to remember their sons and brothers with this cross-shaped memorial.

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

Jan 1, 2018

One litigant argues that the tax code creates the new religion of “taxism” in violation of the First Amendment. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Ben Franklin reportedly said, “There is nothing certain in life except for death and taxes.” Well, in a 548-page complaint, one man has targeted at least one of those certainties, and it’s not death.

Terry Lee Hinds contends that the United States Tax Code has violated the Constitution by establishing “taxism,” an institutionalized faith and religion. Because the tax code has the effect of favoring and even promoting organized religions through tax breaks and other benefits, Mr. Hinds believes the tax code is in violation of the First Amendment.

Well, I suppose this is the sort of case that law students are forced to grapple with, but actually have little effect in the real world. Some may dream such a lawsuit is the silver bullet to bring down our ghoulish tax system. Alas, Mr. Hinds’ lawsuit will not free us from the taxman’s visit every April 15.

For one reason, taxpayers have a lot of hurdles to overcome just to bring the lawsuit. Mere allegations—even ones dressed up in the garb of a First Amendment challenge—that they do not like to pay taxes will not be sufficient.

For now, Mr. Hinds and the rest of us will have to continue to pay our taxes and, most importantly, the religious charities and houses of worship that are exempt from them will continue to be exempt.

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

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