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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: February, 2019
Feb 27, 2019

Public schools are allowed to release schoolchildren for religious education at the request of their parents in an effort to accommodate the faith and wishes of parents. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1975, residents of Harrisonburg, Virginia sued their school board.  The lawsuit questioned the school’s practice of releasing students from school to receive religious instruction.

The Virginia Council of Churches had been providing religious instruction for Harrisonburg schoolchildren since 1923. In 1963, the classes moved from the public school classroom to off-campus trailers.  For about an hour a week, 27 classes of elementary school children, with the consent of their parents, walked out of class and into the awaiting trailers.  Those who did not opt-into the program, simply stayed behind.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved of the release time program for religious instruction. The court explained that the school was merely accommodating the wishes, and religious beliefs, of parents.  Any effect of the city aiding religious instruction was merely incidental to their administration of public education. Parents, the court recognized, had the responsibility for the education of their children, including religious education.  It’s the state’s responsibility to respect and accommodate the parents.

If parents want religious instruction to be a part of that education, the Constitution provides the space for the state to so accommodate.  By releasing children for religious instruction at the request of their parents, public schools show respect for the religious beliefs of their community.

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

Feb 25, 2019

Upon returning a changed man from World War I, Riley Bembry and a number of other returning soldiers erected a simple white cross, dedicating it to all who have fought and died for their country. In 2001, someone sued and a judge ordered the cross to be removed from view. Learn more: firstliberty.org/Briefing.


Riley Bembry returned from World War I a changed man. Upon his return, this former army medic, settled in Los Angeles and became a butcher.  But, the city could not contain him. He headed into the Mojave Desert and became a prospector. 

By the time the Great Depression gripped the nation, other veterans of the Great War had found their way to Bembry’s cabin, each seeking to escape the emotional and physical scars left from the war. Together, in 1934, they erected a simple, seven-foot monument atop a rocky outcropping not far from Bembry’s cabin, but miles and miles from anything else. They chose a common symbol to honor war-dead: a white cross and dedicated it, “To honor the dead of all wars.”

When Bembry died in 1984, Henry Sandoz, Bembry’s close friend, began to care for the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial Cross. In 2001, someone sued.  A judge would eventually order the memorial hidden from view—literally covered with a padlocked bag—while the case was decided. First Liberty had the privilege of working with Henry Sandoz, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion and others to defend that memorial.  Before he was a senator, Ted Cruz volunteered his time as lead counsel on the case.

Because of Henry Sandoz, Ted Cruz, Veterans of Foreign Wars, The American Legion, and First Liberty, that memorial still stands today just where Bembry placed it in honor of “the dead of all wars.” 

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

Feb 22, 2019

The use of cross-shaped memorials has been a long standing tradition in honoring the dead. In 1915 Major John McCrae wrote the famous poem, “In Flanders Fields” and the cross reference is no mistake. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In May of 1915, Major John McCrae buried his friend.  It is believed that after the burial he penned the now famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.”  This is what he wrote:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row,

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

 

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields.

 

Take up our quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

 

The reference to crosses was no accident. These were the markers used for temporary gravestones across Europe.  When the graves were made permanent, the world community rejected efforts to convert the temporary, cross-shaped gravestones into rounded tombstones.

That is why today, across America, many veterans memorials are cross-shaped.  And, that is why we defend them.  Today, “the foe” of McCrae’s poem are those wishing to purge the religious from public view, including veterans memorials bearing religious imagery.  But, we will not break faith, with those who died.

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

Feb 20, 2019

Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) protect religious acts of protests outside of the Supreme Court? Learn how a U.S. District Court decided the case at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Sometimes the substantial burden on a person’s religious exercise comes literally to the steps of the Supreme Court.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia recently dismissed a lawsuit alleging that preventing anti-war activists from demonstrating outside the Supreme Court violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. 

The activists noted in their complaint that as a “post-denominational Christian” and “Unity Christian,” their religious beliefs compel protests against war.  They insist on living out their spirituality through prayer vigils and peace walks, sometimes on the Supreme Court’s steps. 

Interestingly, the court never questioned the sincerity of their beliefs, no matter how odd they seem.  Nevertheless, the court determined that RFRA did not protect their religious acts of protest.  Why? Because the rule restricts “only one of a multitude of means by which Plaintiffs could engage in their religiously motivated activity.”  According to their own words, the steps of the Supreme Court are not the onlyplace in which to exercise their beliefs; it’s just one ofthe places they exercise their beliefs.  So, while the rules might burden their religious exercise, it’s not a substantial burden since there are many avenues left open to their religious exercise. 

RFRA provides broad protection to those who seek to exercise their religion, even when they attempt to do so in public.This case reminds us that RFRA correctly balances that right against the legitimate needs of government to govern. 

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

Feb 18, 2019

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently denied review of the court that declared a cross-shaped veterans memorial unconstitutional. A number of judges on the court disagreed with the decision and made their stances known. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit declined to review a decision of that court that said the cross-shaped Bladensburg World War I Veterans’ Memorial is unconstitutional, not all the judges agreed.

Chief Judge Gregory noted his dissent.  He said, “Nearly a century ago, Maryland citizens, out of deep respect and gratitude, took on the daunting task of erecting a monument to mirror the measure of individual devotion and sacrifice these heroes had so nobly advanced. The panel majority says their effort violates the Constitution the soldiers fought to defend. I, respectfully, think otherwise.”

Judge Niemeyer said with some exasperation, “Until this action was filed by persons who claim to be offended by the presence of the monument, no complaint had been made about its presence . . .”

But, Judge Wilkinson was poetic in his dissent. He wrote, “The dead cannot speak for themselves. But may the living hear their silence. . . This memorial and this cross have stood for almost one full century. Life and change flow by the small park in the form of impatient cars and trucks. That is disturbance enough.”

He concluded simply noting that the park in which the memorial stands, “may not be Arlington National Cemetery, but it is the next thing to it. I would let the cross remain and let those honored rest in peace.”

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

Feb 15, 2019

Memorials are symbols meant to remind the living of the sacrifice of our fallen soldiers and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision to deny an en banc review of the Bladensburg Veterans Memorial could be setting a dangerous precedent. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Veterans’ memorials are symbols meant to remind the living of the service and sacrifice the fallen made for freedom.

That is why Gold Star mothers in 1919 started work on the Bladensburg World War I Veterans’ Memorial.  They did not want the world to forget the sacrifice their sons made.  So, they, along with The American Legion, erected a cross-shaped memorial.  The design mirrored the universally accepted symbol erected over the thousands of graves of men who died in Europe defending freedom.  No one complained for almost 100 years.

Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit refused to overturn an opinion of a panel of that court that would direct a federal district to consider whether the monument should have it’s horizontal arms removed or be razed to the ground completely.

Such a decision sets a dangerous precedent for veterans’ memorials across America. If this decision stands, other memorials will be targeted for destruction as well. We will appeal this case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I encourage you to go to DontTearMeDown.com and join us in defending this memorial to the 49 men of Prince George’s County, Maryland killed in the line of duty during World War I. 

We forget what we do not see.  Unless the Supreme Court intervenes, the Bladensburg memorial and similar memorials in close by in Arlington National Cemetery may disappear as well.

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

Feb 13, 2019

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.

Feb 11, 2019

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.

Feb 8, 2019

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 6, 2019

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 neutraltoward 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.

Feb 4, 2019

The Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial was erected to honor 49 veterans who gave their lives for their nation—but one group is suing to tear it down. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


In 1925, the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial was erected to honor the 49 men of Prince George’s County, Maryland, who gave their lives in WWI.  It stands outside of Washington, D.C., in the median near the National Defense Highway. This memorial—one of the oldest memorials on U.S. soil to honor the fallen of World War I—has stood without complaint for nearly a century.

For the first time in over nine decades, the American Humanist Association voiced a complaint.  They filed a federal lawsuit seeking to topple the memorial because those who erected it chose the shape of a cross to honor the fallen. 

One of the mothers who supported the memorial early on noted to her senator that her son died and was buried in Europe.  Though she could not visit his grave there, she said, she considered the Bladensburg World War I memorial to be her son’s grave marker close to home. 

First Liberty Institute, along with our volunteer attorneys at the law firm of Jones Day, represents the American Legion who erected the memorial in 1925.  This memorial was erected to honor heroes who gave their lives in defense of freedom.  To tear this memorial down now would not only desecrate their memory, it would demonstrate a level of hostility to religion that our Founding Fathers warned against.

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

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