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First Liberty Briefing

First Liberty Briefing is an exclusive podcast hosted by First Liberty Institute’s Deputy General Counsel Jeremy Dys. In about 90-seconds, once 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: May, 2018
May 30, 2018

Gregory Holt was granted permission by the Supreme Court to grow his beard while in prison in accordance with his Islamic faith. Listen at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Gregory Holt is a felon serving time for his crime in a prison operated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections.  He is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammed and, according to his Islamic faith, believed he should leave his beard uncut.

Well, there was a problem.  Prison regulations only permitted inmates to grow their beard one-quarter of an inch long.  Holt filed a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, alleging that this restriction on beard growth was a substantial burden on the free exercise of his religion without a compelling justification. 

At the end of the day, the court found 9-0 that the regulation did in fact substantially burden the prisoner’s religion. The court reasoned that there were ways to accommodate even a violent felon’s religious exercise while also accomplishing its correctional goals. 

Holt v. Hobbsserves as an important reminder that even incarcerated felons retain at least some religious liberty. And, don’t forget “religious land use” is the first three letters in RLUIPA, meaning that this case also works to protect churches, synagogues, and religious ministries that are substantially burdened by the heavy hand of government that would substantially burden the free exercise of their religion without a compelling justification.

And that’s the remarkable story of how a felon’s beard protects your religious liberty.

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

May 28, 2018

The Akebono Brake Corportaion hired Clintoria Burneett in 2014 to fulfill the job of Washer Inspector. But when her religious beliefs prohibit her from wearing pants, the company sought to withdraw their offer of employment. Learn more about Clintoria’s story at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Akebono Brake Corporation hired Clintoria Burnett in 2014 at one of its South Carolina automotive brake manufacturing locations as a temporary worker.  Burnett is an adherent to the Apostolic Faith Church of God and True Holiness.  Her faith requires that she cannot wear pants and, even since she was a small child, has only worn skirts and dresses.

When Burnett received the offer for the job of Washer Inspector, she was wearing an ankle-length skirt.  When she was told that she would have to wear pants to perform her job, the company withdrew their offer of employment.  According to the complaint filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the company, “failed to engage in anyform of interactive process regarding a religious accommodation for Burnett, and failed to consider any potential accommodation of Burnett’s religious beliefs.”

Once an employer knows of an employee’s religion, it is required by law to at least make an effort to accommodate ordemonstrate why such an accommodation would work an “undue hardship” upon the business.

Companies often have difficulty staffing positions and safety regulations can make that task even more difficult.  Yet, it is vital that companies maintain our national commitment to religious liberty and human dignity by at least trying to find a way to accommodate an employee’s religious liberty at the job site. 

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

May 25, 2018

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kersten was interviewed for a story by the base newspaper entitled, “Meet Your Leadership.”  One question really annoyed Mikey Weinstein, an activist that often decries the presence of religion within the United States Military.  Learn how Mikey Weinstein reacted at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kersten was interviewed for a story by the base newspaper entitled, “Meet Your Leadership.”  The Q&A article ranged from why Kersten joined the air force to his proudest achievements as an officer in the United States Air Force.

One question really annoyed Mikey Weinstein, an activist that often decries the presence of religion within the United States Military.  The question asked, “Is there a leader from your career that influenced you the most?” It was Col. Kersten’s answer that sent Weinstein searching for his computer to type out an angry letter to the base commander.  Kersten answered, “As a Christian, my example is to be like Christ. He is my guide and affects all of my decisions.”

Weinstein was apoplectic.  He denounced Kersten’s answer as proselytization and condemned its presence in a base publication as favoritism to Christianity.  Worse, Weinstein demanded that Kersten be “visibly punished.”

But, “visibly punishing” someone for exercising their religion would be the precise opposite of religious freedom. We do not haul people who exercise their religious liberty to the center of a military base and “visibly punish” them.  That’s not freedom.

Sorry, Mr. Weinstein.  We protect the religious liberty of all Americans—including our service men and women—because religious freedom is a human right, a right not sacrificed in service to our country.

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

May 23, 2018

Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius H. Schmitt, a catholic priest better known as “Father Schmitt”, selflessly helps sailors escape during an attack. Learn more about this hero at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Lieutenant Junior Grade Aloysius H. Schmitt was a catholic priest better known as “Father Schmitt.”  Originally from St. Lucas, Iowa, Father Schmitt was aboard the USS Oklahoma on December 7, 1941, as the battleship was torpedoed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

Father Schmitt had just led mass that infamous Sunday morning when the ship carrying 1,300 souls was attacked. And, Father Schmitt posthumously received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for heroism. According to the citation, Father Schmitt realized only a few men could escape through a small hatch.  He insisted that others go ahead of him.  He remained behind, pronouncing a blessing on the men while they crawled out to safety.

Seventy-five years later, Father Schmitt’s remains have been positively identified and appropriately honored.

Many men and women are heroes, but Father Schmitt’s selfless act for his sailors is born more from care for their souls than of valor.  As I consider his heroism, I’m reminded that there is an effort underway to rid Chaplains like Father Schmitt from our military.  That can never be.  Our military has welcomed the chaplaincy corp from its inception because one’s right to religious liberty is not surrendered at basic training.     

First Liberty defends chaplains, like Father Schmitt, who would voluntarily trade a rifle for a Bible in service to their comrades in arms.

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

May 21, 2018

A group of atheists, filed a lawsuit against the United States Congress, the Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Mint, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and, for good measure, the United States of America in a failed bid to invalidate the national motto from our currency. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Our national motto has appeared on our paper currency since the 1950’s, our coins since the 1860’s, and was first articulated as our motto by Francis Scott Key in 1812.

Recently in Ohio, a group of atheists filed a lawsuit against the United States Congress, the Department of the Treasury, the U.S. Mint, the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and, for good measure, the United States of America in a failed bid to invalidate the national motto from our currency.

First Liberty Institute represented The American Legion in a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to dismiss the challenge to the motto.  Thankfully, that court has joined eleven circuit courts of appeal and the Supreme Court of the United States in rejecting constitutional challenges to our national motto.

If a court were ever to invalidate the national motto, “In God We Trust” would have to be scrubbed from the walls of Congress, erased from our currency, deleted as the state motto of Florida, cut off of the state flag of Georgia, ripped off the backs of sheriff’s cruisers nationwide, and bleeped during the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Not only would that come at an enormous cost to accomplish, it would come at a detrimental cost to our history and heritage as a people.

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

May 18, 2018

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.

May 16, 2018

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.

May 14, 2018

In April of 2017, the Indiana General Assembly passed, and its governor quickly signed, a measure providing students with the chance to take an elective surveying the worlds religions, Learn more about this law at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Hoosier state has taken steps to codify important religious liberty protections for Indiana’s students. 

In April of 2017, the Indiana General Assembly passed, and its governor quickly signed, a measure providing students with the chance to take an elective surveying the worlds religions, while outlining the civil liberties afforded to its students in Indiana’s public schools.

The new law provides each local school district the freedom to offer an elective course that will study the historical, cultural, and literary contributions of the world’s major religions. 

At the same time, some of the critical civil liberties protected by the law include protecting a student’s right to express their religious beliefs in class and class assignments, the right to pray before, during, and after the school day, and the right to access a school’s facilities in the same manner that secular groups do.

Of course, many of these protections are found in policies issued by the United States Department of Education.  Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a state dedicate significant legislative effort to religious liberty.  Students should not be required to hide their faith at school, nor should they be punished for daring to discuss their religious beliefs while at school.

Religious liberty should be our national priority.  It’s good to see that, at least for one state, it’s a clear priority for their students.

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

May 11, 2018

A recent case out of Fresno regarding our national motto, “In God We Trust,” is proving that American heritage is trying to be resisted by vehement disputants. Learn what this issue entails at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


According to The Fresno Bee, the Fresno City Council is considering adding the national motto, “In God We Trust,” to the wall of the council chambers.  But, at least one local resident opposes the proposal. 

In the mind of one atheist protestor, the delicate balance between church and state is upset entirely by the public display of these four words.  And, despite the fact that the atheist writes, “Atheists like me feel the idea of “God” has little meaning,” he encourages the local community to oppose a word which he believes has “little meaning.”  One wonders how a word with “little meaning” can violate the so-called separation of church and state, but that’s another issue.

Of course, if folks wanted to purchase the article in The Fresno Bee, they would do so with coins bearing the national motto since 1864.  The city council would be in good company with the United States House of Representatives which has the motto emblazoned behind the speaker’s dais. And, on the way to city hall, residents may have to drive by police or sheriff’s cruisers sporting the national motto. 

Throughout America’s history, the national motto has been honored and celebrated as an expression of what it means to be an American. Any effort to prevent its display should be rejected as bald efforts to rewrite our history and destroy our heritage.

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

May 9, 2018

A Nevada school district has reversed a long-standing that allows students in Washoe County to decorate their graduation caps. Learn how this story helped facilitate religious liberty by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


A Nevada school district has reversed a long-standing policy just in time for its high school graduates to stick a feather in their cap.

Students in the Washoe County School District have, in the past, been prevented from decorating their graduation caps.  The policy prevented what we might call graduation graffiti, the inappropriate decorating of caps and gowns with vulgar language and even gang symbols.  But, in its zeal to protect the solemnity of the day, the policy prevented Native American students from decorating their cap with an eagle feather.

Native Americans attach significant spiritual meaning to eagle feathers. The district’s policy prevented Quecholi Nordwall’s older sister from wearing a feather at graduation in 2014 and he was determined to make a difference this year. 

And it looks like that’s just what happened. With the change in policy, the school district has, in fact, opened the graduation cap to decoration once more.  The district could probably still prevent vulgar and lewd messages from appearing, but now, not only may Native American students adorn their caps with an eagle feather, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious students should be able to decorate their caps with reference to their faith. 

This is how religious liberty encourages liberty, tolerance, and diversity:  As one faith group’s religious expression is protected, it means that those of other faiths benefit as well. 

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

May 7, 2018

Bryan Finnemore was a self-described fundamentalist Christian. At the hydro-electric company where he worked, he oftentimes overheard a lot of vulgar statements that did not sit well with his religious beliefs and eventually filed a religious discrimination claim. Learn what the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine said about his claim at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Bryan Finnemore is described as a fundamentalist Christian.  He worked for a hydro-electric company in Bangor, Maine.  Everyone there knew that he was a Christian and that’s where the problems seemed to begin.

The talk in the garage where Bryan worked was often vulgar.  His coworkers made explicit, demeaning jokes about their wives.  It was more than Bryan could stand.  He finally spoke up, questioning how they could carry on in such a manner and explaining that such conversation was offensive to him because of his religious beliefs.

You can probably guess what happened next: Bryan’s coworkers turned their crude jokes on him, targeting Bryan’s wife instead of their own.  He complained to his supervisors, but they took no action. It was too much.  So, Bryan resigned.

After he filed a claim of religious discrimination, the lower court granted summary judgment in favor of the company.  The Supreme Judicial Court of Maine reversed that decision, explaining that “whether a comment is of a religious nature or whether it occurred because of an individual’s religious beliefs or would not have occurred but for the individual’s religion” is a question of fact that a jury should decide.

Bryan’s case is a good reminder that sometimes it takes a jury of one’s peers to sort through all the facts in order to defend an employee’s religious liberty.

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

May 4, 2018

The Liberty Christian Center in Watertown, New York, asked for permission to use the Watertown High School Cafeteria for its religious services.  The local school board denied the application and use of school property. Learn what the Constitution says about the issue at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Liberty Christian Center in Watertown, New York, asked for permission to use the Watertown High School Cafeteria for its religious services. 

As their application stated, the worship services to be conducted in the public school cafeteria would include activities of music, religious instruction, and Christian testimony.  But, the local school board denied the application, stating that, since New York law did not specifically authorize religious organizations to utilize public school buildings, the application had to be denied. 

The court reviewed previous uses of the public school cafeteria.  It found that among other uses, the school had been used to host a “Local Talent Night” which featured religious music, religious instruction, and even Christian testimony.  Since both the worship service and the local talent show shared a religious purpose and context, it was unlawful for the school to permit the talent show, but deny the use of the facility for a worship service.

Some decry the use of a public school by a religious organization as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  That is simply not true.  The First Amendment demands that a school board be neutral toward religion. Letting a secular organization use school property, but denying a religious organization the same use, is not neutrality, it’s hostility.

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

May 2, 2018

Steed Lobotzke, a Football coach for the United States Air Force Academy and alumni used his personal Twitter account to post Bible verses. This angered an activist group, labeling the tweets as “unchecked Christian extremism” and demanded that the Academy put an end to it. Learn how the Academy decided to respond at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Steed Lobotzke graduated from the United States Air Force Academy in 1992.  He eventually found his way back to campus, this time as the tight-ends coach for the Academy’s football team.

And, like the other coaches, he has a Twitter account where he describes himself as a “Follower of Christ, family man, and football coach.”  Perhaps like many of you, Coach Lobotzke often posts verses from the Bible on his Twitter account.

This angered an activist group, labeling the tweets as “unchecked Christian extremism” and demanded that the Academy put an end to it.

The Academy looked into it and determined that, in fact, the Twitter account was a personal account, not connected with the Academy, rightly concluding that it was “committed to protecting [an] individuals' right to practice any religion they choose, or no religion, provided their practices do not violate policy or law, or impede mission accomplishment, military readiness, unit cohesion, standards or discipline." 

The activist’s response was vulgar and promised more antagonism against the institution, but the Academy made the right call.  Had the Academy punished the coach for his personal tweets, they would’ve been hostile toward religion, rather than neutral, as the First Amendment demands.

Our Airmen may give up a lot to serve our country, but they do not give up religious liberty—in their planes, on the gridiron, or on Twitter.

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

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