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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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Mar 14, 2018

A recent survey shows that universities are increasingly providing space for students of all faiths. Despite push back from groups who want all religion erased from the public square, these schools should be commended for providing meeting space for all students. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


A recent survey of Big 10 colleges reveals that universities are increasingly providing space for religious students on campus.

According to the report, these new spaces on campus serve students from a variety of faith backgrounds. Some use the rooms for prayer and others for religious gatherings.

But, not everyone thinks the rooms should be used for just religious purposes, however. The Ohio State University student government passed a resolution urging campus leaders to reconsider the interfaith space as religious-use only.

Activists off-campus questioned the University of Iowa, suggesting that setting aside rooms for use by religious students “unconstitutionally entangled itself with religion.”

That, of course, is simply the political posturing of ideologues that dislike any religion appearing in public. The efforts by these universities are to be commended. Providing space for religious students to meet is an important means of recognizing the diverse, religious background of its student body.

At the same time, it should be unnecessary. Religious students should be able to use campus space on the same terms as secular students. To the extent certain religious backgrounds require specific space, the efforts by these Big 10 universities are to be commended. Yet, it is important to remind our coeds that, as in all of life, religious liberty means religious students are to be welcomed and tolerated in the university setting.

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

Mar 12, 2018

Donna Dunbar and her husband have served their community faithfully for many years. In doing so, Donna hosts a Bible study in the social room of her condominium, that is until the condo association board adopted a new resolution, without warning, forbidding all religious activities in the room. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Donna Dunbar and her husband Clarence love to serve their community in Port Charlotte, Florida. They founded a soup kitchen, at which they donated over 4,000 volunteer service hours—an act that won them the President’s Volunteer Service Award.

But, things aren’t has rosy at their condominium. Donna is a lay minister in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition. She welcomes a few of her friends to the social room at her condo each week for a Bible study. The room is used by lots of people. Some play games there, there’s a weekly poker game, and even a regular movie night for all to attend.

Until recently, Donna’s Bible study was no big deal. But, without any announcement or warning, the condo association board adopted a resolution putting an end to the use of the common areas of the condo for religious purposes, including Donna’s Bible study. Someone even put a sign on the organ in the room that said, “Any and all Christian music is banned!”

First Liberty Institute filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging that Donna’s condo broke the law with such a discriminatory policy and asking Secretary Ben Carson to undertake an investigation into this matter.

After all, such unequal treatment of citizens shows hostility to religion and violates federal law and the First Amendment.

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

Mar 9, 2018

Amish Families in the state of Maine are asking for the government to accommodate them to wear blaze red instead of orange. Learn why this accommodation could help achieve hunter safety at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Mainers want their state lawmakers to see red—at least while they’re hunting.

Amish families throughout the State of Maine hunt for their food. As you may know, the Amish religiously shun many modern conveniences, in accordance with their religious customs requiring a simple life. That includes while they are hunting.

You see, most states require hunters to wear blaze orange while hunting. This increases visibility to other hunters and increases hunter safety. But, it’s pretty flashy—too flashy, in fact, for the simple ways of the Amish. So, they are asking for a religious accommodation in the law. If approved, Amish Mainers will be permitted to wear red instead of blaze orange.

It would seem to be in the best interests of Maine to follow the lead of several states in providing this accommodation. Several Amish have pledged to disobey the blaze orange law and, if cited, refuse to pay the fine. This simple accommodation would prevent the needless punishment by the state of its religious citizens and any lawsuits challenging such a burden on the free exercise of their religion.

But, it should not have to go to court. By a simple spin of the color wheel, and a few votes in the legislature, it would seem that the state could achieve its interest in hunter safety, while honoring the religious conscience of the Amish.

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

Mar 7, 2018

The Lansing Housing Commission in Michigan allowed residents to use a community room for birthday parties, tutoring, and events. However, the commission refused to grant access to the community rooms for “religious worship, services, or programs.” Learn why religious discrimination is not cured by discriminating against all religions equally at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The Lansing Housing Commission provides subsidized housing in central Michigan. In many of the facilities, the housing commission provides a community room. The commission often grants access to those community rooms for birthday parties, Boy Scout meetings, tutoring sessions, and other community events. However, the commission refused to grant access to the community rooms for “religious worship, services, or programs.”

His Healing Hands Medical Clinic provides a range of services to the community inside the housing commission’s facilities. When its leaders asked to use the community room for religious services on Sundays, the church was excluded. The commission explained that it was welcome to use the community room to meet the physical needs of the community, but could not “say anything about Jesus” or “bring any Bibles” with them.

In court, the commission argued that their policy was permissible because it denied use of the community to all religions equally. But, the court rejected that reasoning. Excluding all religions is the very definition of religious discrimination, which is not cured by discriminating against all religions equally.

Government commissions are not permitted to pick and choose which viewpoint it will permit in public places and which it will refuse. The First Amendment requires our government to be neutral in dealing with the various religious viewpoints that make up our public square.

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

Mar 5, 2018

A Baptist Minister in Massachusetts hauled a 1,235 pound cheese wheel the same day Jefferson wrote an infamous letter that was meant to assure the Danbury Baptists. Learn what the letter said and how a pastor and president impacted religious liberty at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Pastor John Leland, a Baptist minister in Massachusetts, celebrated Thomas Jefferson’s election from his pulpit by announcing that the congregation would make a giant wheel of cheese to honor the incoming president. So, on the morning of July 21, 1801, the congregation hauled pails of curds drawn from 900 local cows. As they pressed the cheese, they sang hymns and gave thanks for the incoming president. In the end, the cheese wheel measured four feet in diameter, thirteen feet in circumference, seventeen inches in height, and weighed 1,235 pounds.

It took months for the cheese to be hauled to Jefferson, with the accompanying Leland preaching along the way. After Jefferson received the ripening cheese, he left to attend a weekly church service held in the United States Capitol building.

That same day, Jefferson wrote what would become an infamous letter. Like Leland’s Republican, cheese-mongering congregation, the Danbury Baptists felt in the minority in Congregationalist-Federalist New England. They feared the loss of religious liberty under the new president.

His letter was meant to assure them, explaining that the First Amendment erected “a wall of separation between Church and State” meant to protect the church from the overreach of the very government Jefferson was elected to lead.

It may be a cheesy story, but that’s how a pastor and a president impacted religious liberty.

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

Mar 2, 2018

A new Supreme Court decision respects the American tradition of allowing religious ministries and organizations to pursue their missions without interference from the IRS. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1977, the Internal Revenue Service tried to declare that Catholic nuns operating a hospital was not a “religious function.” Congress responded by amending the Employment Retirement Income Securities Act or ERISA to prevent the IRS from deciding what is or is not a church.

Nonetheless, class-action lawyers recently tried to argue that because some religious hospitals established pension plans, ERISA’s exemptions did not apply because those plans were not established by a church.

Well, a unanimous Supreme Court recently rejected that reasoning. The Court recognized that Congress’s amendment of ERISA continues to protect religious organizations from the burdens of ERISA, foreclosing the possibility that the IRS could bankrupt a religious organization simply because it does not believe the organization is religious enough.

First Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case on behalf of several religious organizations. As my colleague, Justin Butterfield, said of the decision in Advocate Health Care Network v. Stapleton: “The History of the United States of America is one requiring the government to respect the religious freedom and autonomy of its houses of worship and religious organizations. The Supreme Court’s decision respects that great history and tradition, allowing churches, synagogues, mosques, and religious ministries to pursue their religious mission without the weight of government bureaucracy and regulation hindering their efforts and intruding upon their mission.”

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

Feb 28, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 26, 2018

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 FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


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 FirstLiberty.org.

Feb 23, 2018

President Trump is fulfilling his constitutional obligation by signing an executive order that prioritizes religious liberty within the Trump Administration. Learn how the president did so at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


On the 2017 National Day of Prayer, President Trump took a remarkable step in support of religious liberty.

President Trump assembled religious leaders from a variety of faith traditions in the Rose Garden of the White House. In addition to making remarks about the National Day of Prayer, the President signed an executive order strengthening religious liberty.

The executive action prioritizes religious liberty within the Trump administration, encouraging the HHS Secretary to consider rules alleviating the religious conscience of those impacted by Obamacare, while ordering the IRS to decline enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, and directing the Attorney General to issue guidance to all executive agencies on the law governing religious liberty.

This executive order is one of the ways in which the President is fulfilling his constitutional obligation to ensure that the laws passed by the legislature be faithfully executed. Moreover, the executive order reigns in those administrative agencies that have, in recent years, often ignored the laws governing religious liberty.

As my boss, Kelly Shackelford said after the President signed the order, “Our country was founded on the promise that its government would respect the religious liberty of its people. America’s commitment to freedom—and especially religious freedom—should be our national priority.”

Much work remains in defense of religious liberty, but, with this order, the President has set his administration on good footing.

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

Feb 21, 2018

The Framers inserted a couple of words in the Oaths Clause to protect the religious conscience of citizens taking oaths. Learn how they implemented this protection at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


On our last episode, we discussed the Religious Test Clause, found in Article VI of the United States Constitution. Today, I’d like to discuss the clause just before it: the “Oaths Clause.”

In practical terms, the Oaths Clause required federal officials to be bound to their office with an “oath or affirmation” that they would support the Constitution.

Most immediately, that language came in stark contrast to the oath the new Americans once swore to England’s King. No longer would Americans swear allegiance to a single human; rather, their duty in office would be in service and support of the Constitution and, by extension, to the “we the people” mentioned in its preamble.

You probably understand the part about oaths, but, why did the framers insert the “or affirmation” part? The answer reveals our country’s commitment to recognizing that its government should neither compel, nor compromise the religious conscience of its citizens.

Some religious beliefs prevent the taking of oaths of any kind, save an oath to God alone. It may seem insignificant upon first glance, but by inserting the word “or” in the Oaths Clause and giving the option to affirm support of the Constitution, the framers made the official policy of the United States that it would show deference to the religious conscience of its citizens.

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

Feb 19, 2018

Tucked away in the corner of the United States Constitution is an important phrase that demonstrates our country’s commitment to religious liberty. Learn why the Framers sought to protect religious liberty at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Tucked away in the corner of the United States Constitution is an important phrase that demonstrates our country’s commitment to religious liberty.

Toward the end of the main part of the Constitution we find Article VI, dealing mostly with debts and the supremacy of treaties. But, in the final paragraph, the framers prohibited any “religious test” for constitutional officers.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this Religious Test Clause is that it has been entirely self-executing, probably because no religious test has actually been presented to any federal office holder.

But, the framers had at least two concerns about religious tests. First, if permitted, could religious tests be used by religious groups to exclude individuals from other religions? And, equally important, the framers recognized that a religious test could keep good and wise, but secular, citizens from achieving office.

The framers of the constitution sought a government officially neutral toward religion, one neither hostile toward, nor sympathetic of, the religious beliefs of its federal officers. Inherently, this recognizes the outer limits of government: that government’s job is to govern, rather than demand its people practice religion in the manner prescribed by Congress.

In this way, somewhat unique in history, the United States became a government that permitted its people to pursue their relationship with the Divine without pressure—or punishment—by their government.

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

Feb 16, 2018

Harbor Missionary Church was required by the city of San Buenaventura, California to file for a conditional use permit in order to continue their homeless ministry. The city denied the permit without much of an explanation. Learn more about the case by visiting FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Ministry to the homeless is a difficult, often thankless task for many houses of worship. Some cities tend to make it even harder.

Harbor Missionary Church in the city of San Buenaventura, California had what appeared to be a thriving ministry to the homeless. But San Buenaventura required the church to file for a conditional use permit in order to continue the ministry. They did and were hopeful when the city staff recommended that the permit be issued. But, the city planning commission denied the permit outright and without much of an explanation.

The church filed a lawsuit alleging that the denial violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA. On appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the church argued that the city had substantially burdened their religious exercise. In fact, without help from the Ninth Circuit, the church would be forced to sell its property and raise $1.4 million in order to relocate their homeless ministry. Thankfully, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the city had violated RLUIPA by denying the special use permit.

Zoning laws are important to local government, but they can be used to prevent the free exercise of religion as well. When they do, RLUIPA provides a check on the government’s exercise of authority against a religious organization’s religious liberty.

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

Feb 14, 2018

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 FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


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 FirstLiberty.org.

Feb 12, 2018

Recent Minneapolis reports reveals that an aspiring female teen boxer has been granted religious accommodation. Learn about this and more sports-related cases that require religious liberty at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


News out of Minneapolis reports of an aspiring teen boxer granted a religious accommodation.

Amaiya Zafar is a 16-year old boxing protégé that, for some time, has had her sights set on representing the United States as a boxer at the 2020 Olympics. But, current rules place her in the position of having to choose between her faith and her sport.

USA Boxing, however, has solved the problem for the St. Paul teenager by accommodating her faith in the ring. As a result, Zafar will be permitted to keep her arms and legs covered with long sleeves and leggings, as her faith requires.

That’s a simple solution and, while I don’t share Zafar’s religious beliefs concerning clothing, I do support efforts by anyone, USA Boxing included, to take reasonable steps to respect the religious beliefs of Americans whenever possible.

Of course, Zafar is not the first boxer to need a religious accommodation. Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali, famously asserted his religious beliefs as grounds for conscientious objection to the Vietnam War.

In other sports-related cases, we are working to protect the right of Coach Joe Kennedy to pray silently at the 50-yard line when the game is over. Meanwhile, in Florida, we are defending the right of a football team at a Christian school in Florida to be able to pray over the loudspeaker prior to kickoff.

As these stories remind us: religious liberty impacts every area of our life, including sports.

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

Feb 9, 2018

Texas Governor stands for religious freedom by signing a bill that prohibits the government from forcefully demanding ministers’ sermons. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


It’s not every day that the governor of a state finds himself behind the pulpit of a church. But, I guess not every state is Texas.

Greg Abbott, governor of the great state of Texas, joined Pastor Steve Riggle and churchgoers at Grace Community Church, recently to sign a bill into law.

The bill that passed the Texas legislature made it unlawful for the government to force religious leaders to turn over copies of sermons during a civil lawsuit or administrative proceeding.

And, if you don’t think such a law is necessary, recall that the pastor of the church Governor Abbott was in that day was asked by the mayor of Houston to turn over his sermons—even though he wasn’t even a party to the lawsuit.

If that’s not enough, recall that Dr. Eric Walsh, himself a lay minister, was fired by the State of Georgia over something he said in a sermon. And, after he sued the state, Georgia’s attorney general subpoenaed copies of Dr. Walsh’s sermons, sermon notes, and sermon transcripts.

So, the day has come in which we need laws on the books to make it clear that the state is not entitled to review a pastor’s sermons. The pulpit has rightly been called “the sacred desk.” The promise of America has been that he who fills that desk is entitled to speak what his conscience demands.

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

Feb 7, 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.

Feb 5, 2018

Sometimes we think that the judicial system can and will solve all of our disputes. Learn about a recent case from the Court of Appeals that says there are some things a court cannot decide at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Sometimes we think that the judicial system can and will solve all of our disputes. A recent case from the Court of Appeals of Ohio says there are some things even a court cannot decide.

A Roman Catholic institution in Ohio recently dismissed a student studying for the priesthood following an investigation into allegations of moral misconduct. The student, understandably upset, sued the school for breach of contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and other charges.

On appeal, the state court in Ohio explained that courts may only adjudicate those matters involving a subject matter courts are authorized to consider.

Courts are permitted to evaluate secular disputes, but the doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention prevents courts from settling disputes involving purely doctrinal and ecclesiastical matters. Here, the court explained, all of the claims alleged stemmed from a dispute by a religious organization over matters of church doctrine. Any resolution would, necessarily, require the court to evaluate religious doctrine—a task courts are ill-prepared to undertake.

The judicial system has broad jurisdiction over matters ranging from simple misdemeanors to complex commercial transactions. Yet, it is right and proper that courts have limits. The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine highlights those limitations, showcasing along the way the inherent deference courts have for religious bodies to govern their own, religious affairs.

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

Feb 2, 2018

When Tzvi McCloud asked for a religious accommodation at his new job in order to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, a Jewish holy day, he was disciplined and sent home. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Tzvi McCloud was hired to work in customer service for XPO Last Mile, a logistics company out of Maryland. But, he didn’t even make it to his first day of work.

When McCloud’s operations manager called him to let him know he was hired and asked him to report to work on October 3, 2016, McCloud explained there was a problem. McCloud wanted to report to work that day, but it was Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days of the year for him as an Orthodox Jew. He asked if reporting the next day would be permissible.

Initially, the manager agreed, but, later that evening, the market vice president called to inform McCloud that the only days the company observed were federal holidays, not religious ones.

McCloud chose to observe his holy day and showed up for work on October 4. When he did, he was sent home. Now, the EEOC is involved, suing XPO for religious discrimination.

EEOC regional attorney Debra Lawrence said it well, “The freedom to exercise one’s religious beliefs is one of our nation’s fundamental values . . . A one-day postponement of a start date is not an undue hardship.”

In other words, religious liberty and the corporate mission need not be in conflict. Accommodating the religious practices of our employees is good business.

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

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.

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