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: July, 2018
Jul 30, 2018

When a Elementary school started treating the Good News Club, a chapter of Child Evangelism Fellowship, differently from the other after school clubs and programs, the Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged the school’s decision. Learn more:

Have you ever been concerned when you heard someone praying? Sandra McDonald was.

She was the new site coordinator for Jenny Lind Elementary school and responsible for the after-school use of the school building by groups from the community.

Child Evangelism Fellowship had a chapter of its Good News Club meeting at the school.  McDonald happened by one day and was “concerned about the religious content of the . . . clubs after overhearing a prayer and reference to Jesus Christ during a . . . meeting.”  Ultimately, the club was told that it would be removed from the after-school lineup of club offerings.  It would still be able to meet, but the school would no longer provide the same transportation and food services that it provided for the Boy and Girl Scouts, Big Brother/Big Sister, and other clubs meeting at the same time.

Child Evangelism Fellowship challenged that decision and, in Child Evangelism Fellowship of MN v. Minneapolis Special Sch. Dist. No. 1, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit concluded that the school had been unlawfully hostile to a religious club, but favorable to similarly situated secular clubs, when it should’ve been neutral toward all clubs.

School districts should not be concerned when religious clubs act like religious clubs.  And, it violates the constitution to treat them differently from other clubs.

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

Jul 27, 2018

In 1956, when Elihu Schimmel wanted to celebrate the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah aboard his station of a U.S. Naval Vessel, the United States Army and Navy honored his religious liberty and helped make the Jewish service possible. Learn more at

It was September 1956 and Elihu Schimmel was cold and lonely.  He was stationed aboard a U.S. Naval vessel above the arctic circle.  His location would account for his being cold, but he didn’t think there was much to be done about his loneliness.

Rosh Hashanah was set to begin and, aside from another Jewish sailor, Schimmel was several friends short of a minyan, a quorum of 10 Jewish men necessary for services.  But, Schimmel knew there were others scattered about the fleet in the coldest theater of the Cold War.

He decided to ask the powers that be if they would help.  The Navy, and the Army hitching a ride, enthusiastically agreed.  The order went out that those wishing to join Schimmel aboard ship would be transported—by seaplane, launch, or helicopter—for the observance of the Jewish High Holy Days.

When the time came, 10 Jewish service men showed up—exactly enough.  The Navy went further, announcing at sunset that the services were about to begin and ordering all aboard to show reverence by putting out their cigarettes.

Schimmel served out his time as a naval medical officer, but he would never forget that celebration, high above the Arctic Circle, made possible courtesy of the United States military. 

And, we now won’t forget how the United States military honored the religious liberty of its servicemembers.

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

Jul 25, 2018

An atheist group attacked Sergeant Larry Gallo and his family after they were featured in an Air Force publication highlighting their medical missions trip to Central America. The group went as far as equating their missions trip to the Crusades and demanding that the publication be removed. To learn more:

They were sick of a commercialized Christmas. The presents and general distraction from what they believed to be a season meant to remind us of something deeper led Larry Gallo and his family to look for something different.

So, they left behind the packages and bows to serve the less fortunate in Central America.  Larry’s girls are physician’s assistants so it was natural for them to take on a medical missions role. Larry, a maintenance engineer, discovered that the kids in line needed some company.  So, as his daughters provide the medicine, Larry kept the kids happy. So, what’s the problem?

Well, Larry Gallo is better known as Sergeant Larry Gallo.  When the U.S. Air Force featured Gallo’s story in one of their publications, an atheist group said the article violated the First Amendment. They even alleged that Gallo’s story, “emboldens our Islamic enemies because we look like Crusaders and it enrages our Islamic allies.”  They wanted the article taken down.

After a quick Internet search recently, I discovered that the article in question is still active on an Air Force website—and it should be. The Air Force should never cave to demands of censoring religion from public view. It should never punish those service members who put service over self, even outside the line of duty.

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

Jul 23, 2018

After a picture of high school football players praying over their coach landed on the front page of a local newspaper, activists sent the school district an angry letter threatening to sue. Learn more at

Whether it’s Tim Tebow, Coach Joe Kennedy, or the thousands of players taking a knee together in prayer after a game, prayer seems to be a popular theme around football. 

At Reitz High School in Evansville, Indiana, the players value prayer rather highly, it would seem.  That became controversial only when a picture of the players gathered in prayer landed on the front page of the local newspaper. 

Activists sent the school district an angry letter, threatening a lawsuit should school officials refuse to take action.  According to them, the coach was violating the law because the picture showed him surrounded by his football players and everyone appeared to be praying.

But, let’s break down that picture a little closer. Yes, the coach was in the center, surrounded by his players, but it clearly shows the players, with bowed heads and hands laid on the coach, led by one player who’s lips are forming the prayers. The players were praying for their coach.

Activists would have this coach stop up his ears and run screaming from the scene of this religious activity.  But, common sense—and the Constitution—would call this hostility to the free exercise of religion by the players. Students have a first amendment right to pray for their coach and the school cannot legally stop their religious expression.

Thankfully, that’s precisely what school officials told the activists.

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

Jul 20, 2018

Joseph Frederick claimed his First Amendment rights were violated when the school principal confiscated his “Bong hits for Jesus” sign at a broadcasting event. 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 religiousexpression.  We remind them that while they mightbe 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

Jul 18, 2018

A church was wrongly accused of violating ‘separation of church and state’ for renting space from local school district. Learn more at

A Massachusetts church is accused of violating the separation of church and state because it rents space from the local school district.

Town leaders of Southbridge, Massachusetts have raised concerns about Iglesia Casa de Destino’s rented use of a public school in its town.  The church pays the standard rate to use the school’s auditorium once per week, like many churches do across the country.  But, the church is known in the community for its conservative, religious beliefs. 

One of the town councilmen is openly questioning whether the church should have a standing agreement to use the property. Not only is the building expensive to operate, the councilman suggested that the agreement could violate the so-called separation of church and state. 

Well, not likely.  The Supreme Court has twice upheld the practice.  A town is, of course, under no obligation to rent its facility to anyone.  But, historically, publicly owned schools have been used and rented by a variety of organizations, including churches. Once a school district decides that it will rent its facilities to the community, it would be unlawful religious discrimination to prevent churches from renting the space.  

As the Supreme Court observed in the 1981 decision of Widmar v. Vincent, “The Constitution forbids a State to enforce certain exclusions from a forum generally open to the public, even if it was not required to create the forum in the first place.”

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

Jul 16, 2018

Three employees decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems.  They met at their colleague’s cubicle on a day that she was not even in the office.  Learn more about how a court decided this case by listening to

Evelyne Shatkin, Linda Shifflett, and Doug Maples took prayer seriously.  So, seriously in fact, that they decided to meet together after work and pray for a colleague that had been causing them problems. 

They met at the cubicle of their colleague after work on a day that she was not even in the office.  Their prayer got pretty serious.  They anointed the cubicle with oil, according to Shatkin’s religious tradition.  They prayed for peace and joy for their colleague.  They even commanded “demons to leave” their colleague as they prayed. 

Word got back to their supervisors about the after-hours prayer meeting.  After an investigation, the supervisor concluded that “the nature, the manner that they’re praying, what language they’re using” determines whether the prayer was harassment.  Human resources agreed and notified the prayer-givers that they would be terminated for their harassing prayers.  Shatkin and Shifflett asked for a religious accommodation for the prayers, but that was denied.  They were fired.

First Liberty Institute took up their case.  A federal district court sided with the employees, as it concluded, “Can a prayer for someone constitute harassment when the alleged object of the prayer is unaware of it?  This court suspects not.”  In fact, the court concluded that the college’s own policies protected the prayers of these employees.

Firing someone for their peaceful exercise of religion at work doesn’t have a prayer.

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

Jul 13, 2018

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 Fireas 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

Jul 11, 2018

The Florida Legislature could sign a law that would align it with the federal Equal Access Act, protecting the religious liberty of its students and teachers. Learn more at

It looks like religious liberty may have found a friendly reception in Florida’s state lawmakers.

The Florida legislature recently sent to the governor a bill prohibiting discrimination against students and educators for religious expression at school. The bill expressly permits students to reference their faith in class assignments and even extra-curricular activities, while requiring school districts to create what we call a “limited public forum” at public events.  This means that, if students at a school event are invited to speak publicly, they would be permitted to express their religious beliefs. 

Should the governor sign the measure, the law of Florida would align itself with the federal Equal Access Act.  That means student religious groups would have state law on their side when seeking to access campus facilities in the same way secular groups do.

Teachers are also covered.  The bill has a provision restricting school districts from preventing teachers from participating in student-initiated religious activities before or after school. 

These are reasonable measures that will show respect for the religious liberty of Florida’s students and teachers. As the Supreme Court said in Shelton v. Tucker: “The vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools.”

Of course, that vigilance starts with the passing of laws and ends by faithfully adhering to them.

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

Jul 9, 2018

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City files a lawsuit against the Mission Woods city council for denying the use of his own home for religious meetings on the basis of traffic and parking concerns. Learn more about this issue at

The city of Mission Woods, Kansas covers just 64 acres outside of Kansas City.  Its part-time government leadership is concerned that the expansion of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City into their small town is going to cause problems.

The Archdiocese purchased a derelict home in Mission Woods.  The roof had holes in it. Animals roamed the attic freely. But the Archdiocese favored the house for prayer groups, religious meetings and religious education throughout the week.  Nonetheless, the Mission Woods city council has twice denied their application citing traffic and parking concerns.

In the past, the city council has approved more expansive land-use in the same area for secular groups like athletic fields for the local high school and a significant parking lot for the University of Kansas health system.  It appears that sports and parking are preferred by the city council, but parking for religious meetings is unwelcome.

The Archdiocese has taken the appropriate step to file a lawsuit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA.  It may appear insignificant, but this case gives all the appearances of religious discrimination. Congress understood that city councils could easily hide religious discrimination within neutral rationales and zoning ordinances like traffic and parking.  RLUIPA forces a closer look at those seemingly neutral defenses, requiring an agency to demonstrate their fairness.

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

Jul 6, 2018

The Ministerial Exception plays a major role in protecting the unique mission of every religious organization by giving them the opportunity to hire and remove employees based on how they further the organization’s mission. Learn more at

Maria Nolen and St. Ann Catholic School had a falling out.

Nolen thinks her religious employer fired her from her job as principal of the school for speaking out against what she viewed as racial discrimination.  The Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, that operates St. Ann’s, said that Nolen simply wasn’t the right person to advance their religious mission.

Nolen’s responsibilities were pretty clear. As principal, she was responsible for implementing an educational atmosphere charged with the Catholic beliefs of her employer.  That included monitoring lesson plans to make sure the teaching of the church was reflected in the lessons of the classroom, leading school prayers, and organizing religious activities for the students and faculty.

The court quickly determined that there was “little doubt that Nolen’s role as principal . . . falls within the general ambit of the ministerial exception.”  Although she lacked the formal title of “minister,” her role clearly conveyed the church’s message and carried out its mission.  Therefore, the court could not interfere with what amounts to a decision by a religious body as to who best perpetuates its religious message and mission.

The ministerial exception is an important doctrine that protects the unique aspects of a religious employer, giving relief to religious organizations from the rigors of employment law that may hamper their unique religious mission.

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

Jul 4, 2018

Learn how America's Founding Fathers recognized the importance of religious liberty during the Declaration of Independence. Learn more by visiting

When telling the story of America, we rightly recount how the founders of our country sought to be free from something.  Perhaps we ought to consider that we are also free to something.

The Pilgrims sought to be free from persecution, but were also eager to be free topractice their faith in peace.

The Declaration of Independence lists a litany of “injuries and usurpations” from which we sought to be free from, but also declared precisely what we are free to: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” to name an essential few.

From the early colonists to the Founding Fathers to the diverse faiths of our neighbors—each benefit from a national commitment to religious liberty that tolerates the free exercise of religion by all peaceful Americans.

The American commitment to liberty recognizes that freedom grows when none are required to hide who they really are in the free exercise of religion.  We are less free when religion is banished from public, hidden from view, or treated with contempt.

As we celebrate our Independence on this the Fourth of July, let us remember that our forefathers paid a high price for our liberty – not merely the right to be free from oppression, but to be free tospeak openly, exercise our faith, and live our lives according to our most deeply cherished beliefs. That is liberty.

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

Jul 2, 2018

The wait for the Supreme Court nomination is now over. His qualifications for the office are unquestionable.  But what does his record reflect on the issue of religious liberty? Learn more about Judge Gorsuch at

The long wait to see what kind of judge President Trump would appoint to the nation’s highest court is now over.  Just ahead looms the confirmation battle for Judge Neil Gorsuch.

His qualifications for the office are unquestionable.  With degrees from Columbia, Harvard, and Oxford, there can be little doubt about his intelligence.  But what about his record as a judge? 

At First Liberty Institute, we have one criterion for evaluating judicial candidates: does his record reflect a history of upholding the Constitution, especially as to religious liberty? I’m happy to say that it does.

Judge Gorsuch wrote and joined opinions supporting the rights of ministries like the Little Sister of the Poor and closely-held family businesses like Hobby Lobby to be free from the burden imposed by the HHS Abortion Pill Mandate.

He wrote or signed opinions upholding the constitutionality of the public display of Ten Commandments monuments and even wrote an opinion defending the existence of cross-shaped memorials for fallen state troopers.

Whether Neil Gorsuch will adequately fill the shoes of the late Justice Scalia is impossible to fully predict. What we can say with some confidence is that JudgeGorsuch has a history of defending the First Amendment from the bench.  We hope that Justice Gorsuch will live up to the American people’s expectation and strongly protect our constitutional freedoms.

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