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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: 2020
Mar 23, 2020

All school organizations should be treated the same. When school officials at the University of Iowa exempted non-religious school organizations from its human rights policy and not groups like InterVarsity, they were held personally liable. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Holding government officials personally liable for violating an organizations religious liberty seems harsh, but is an important—and difficult—job of the federal courts.

At the University of Iowa, university officials exempted a number of groups from their human rights policy.  Sports clubs could distinguish by gender.  The military dental club restricted membership by military members.  Even acapella groups meeting on campus were allowed to restrict membership by gender.

But, the university told the InterVaristy Christian Fellowship chapter that requiring its leadership to adhere to historic religious convictions on human sexuality was wrong and resulted in the club being deregistered.

The club sued the university and the court held that not only did the University violate the law, but the university officials who investigated the student group were to be held personally liable for the constitutional violation.  In civil rights litigation, if a plaintiff demonstrates that a state official acting under color of law deprives a citizen of any of the rights and privileges found in our Constitution, courts may hold them personally liable. 

Holding university or government entities liable is one thing, but when the full weight of federal law lands on the backs of individual bad actors, it has a deterring effect.  Moreover, reminding state officials that they have a responsibility to protect the religious liberty rights of Americans makes them all the more cautious to come close to violating our first freedoms.

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

Mar 16, 2020

Despite an article in Christianity Today claiming tax exemptions are leading churches to be more parasitical than independent, tax exemptions help to protect and promote the autonomy of churches. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The January 2020 edition of Christianity Today features the headline, “The Hidden Cost of Tax Exemption.”  The author makes his case for why American churches may be better off for refusing what he calls the “government largesse” of tax exemptions.

The article portrays churches in America as “basically parasitical” with pastors feeding on the benefits their churches drain from their host community without returning much noticeable benefit. The story contends that the appeal of the tax exemption is rooted in a historical desire to propagate racism and further discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The story ends with these words, “It might not be such a bad thing to lose tax-exempt status . . . The true church of God, after all, is not reliant on its special status in the tax code. We can walk by faith and not by government largesse.”

In truth, rather than make churches more ideologically faithful, the loss of tax exemption for churches would invade upon church autonomy and curb religious liberty. 

The “true church of God” is less a target to be taxed or a parasite to be crushed and more a quiet blessing upon a world in need of the peace they preach and acts of service they humbly perform. A local gathering of religious believers should be viewed as a human right of religious association and free exercise worthy of protection, rather than a potential stream of revenue.

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

Mar 9, 2020

Judge Thomas Griffith’s ruling in Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit v. NLRB is a great example of what the Establishment Clause is supposed to do, limit the role of government in the affairs of religious groups. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The reach of the First Amendment is extensive in securing the religious liberty of individuals and organizations, including colleges and universities. 

Recently, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued its decision in Duquesne University of the Holy Spirit v. NLRB.  When Duquesne, a Catholic university, refused to bargain with a group of adjunct faculty seeking to unionize, the National Labor Relations Board stepped in, recommending that the union be certified. But, the D.C. Circuit Court rejected the NLRB’s jurisdiction over the Catholic university. 

Judge Thomas Griffith, authoring the opinion, notes that our Constitution restrains government agencies from excessive involvement with religious organizations. “The Establishment Clause,” he writes “limits governmental involvement in the affairs of religious groups, and the Free Exercise Clause safeguards the freedom to practice religion, whether as an individual or as part of a group.”

That is critical, he said, because it means religious institutions retain the independence required to pursue religious activity, inculcate its religious identity, and teach according to its religious tradition. After all, the Constitution is meant to restrain government, not empower its creep into every aspect of our lives.

The importance of this decision cannot be understated. Its immediate impact should be welcomed by religious colleges and universities around the country. Furthering the autonomy of religious institutions to be unapologetically religious and free from government intrusion is an unambiguous goal of the First Amendment.

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

Mar 2, 2020

On Religious Freedom Day 2020, President Trump announced new initiatives that his administration is taking to preserve religious freedom in America. Learn more about these three key initiatives at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


On Religious Freedom Day 2020, we celebrated a major victory for the rights of students, teachers, coaches, public employees, and religious organizations who want to freely live out their faith in school, at work, and in ministry.

Two of our clients, Coach Joe Kennedy and Hannah Allen, joined our president, Kelly Shackelford, in the Oval Office of the White House while President Trump announced new initiatives aimed at preserving religious freedom.

First, the U.S. Department of Education issued updated guidelines on prayer and religious expression in public schools. The updated guidelines expand upon previous guidelines and will help students freely live out their faith, without as much interference by school officials.  No student should fear discrimination for simply expressing their faith while at school.

Second, the White House announced that nine federal agencies proposed new administrative rules to ensure that religious organizations and their secular counterparts are treated equally by the federal government. Religious organizations deserve to be treated just like secular organizations.

Finally, the Office of Management and Budget issued new guidance requiring that the administration of federal grants is consistent with the 2017 Supreme Court case of Trinity Lutheran.  Religious organizations should never be disqualified from federal grants just because they are religious.

These actions by the Trump administration are an important step in helping end religious discrimination, while ensuring people of faith will be treated equally when they seek to partner with federal or state governments to provide services to communities nationwide.

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

Feb 24, 2020

After two years since First Liberty filed a lawsuit against the Village of Airmont, New York, the orthodox Jewish community will finally have its day in court. Get the full update and learn more at FirstLiberty.org/briefing.


In 2018, we filed a lawsuit alleging that government officials in the Village of Airmont, New York and the Suffern Central School District had engaged in a deliberate effort to dissuade Orthodox Jewish residents from staying in or moving to the Village of Airmont.

Town officials required multiple rounds of permitting and endless inspections, costing tens of thousands of dollars for Orthodox Jewish residents to be able to use their own homes for religious meetings.  They were even threatened with criminal sanctions by the Town of Airmont.

Even when presented with the prospect of the United States Department of Justice weighing in against them, town officials would not relent, filing motions to dismiss the legal action.  In January of 2020, Judge Vincent Briccetti issued an opinion, denying the town’s motions to dismiss.

My colleague, Keisha Russell said, “Our clients are thrilled that they will get their day in court.  We are pleased that the judge dismissed the effort by both the Village of Airmont and the Suffern School District to avoid accountability for their discriminatory actions.”

Perhaps this will make town officials more receptive to treating its Jewish residents with respect.  The Orthodox community in Airmont just wants to be left alone to peacefully worship and coexist without fear of criminal prosecution.

The First Amendment and federal law protect the right of all Americans to pray together in their homes free from unreasonable and intrusive government interference.

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


Feb 17, 2020

No one can deny Lawrence VanDyke’s excellent credentials for the federal court system. Attempting to deface his reputation nonetheless, the ABA and its progressive counterparts in the Senate questioned his impartiality toward LGBTQ litigants due to his faith. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


President Trump and I have a common friend in Lawrence VanDyke.  I know Lawrence from the time he’s spent volunteering with First Liberty Institute and as solicitor general of both Nevada and Montana.  President Trump nominated him to an open seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

As you might guess, he took a few shots during his confirmation hearing.  This time, the real culprit seems to be the American Bar Association.  Somehow, the ABA is perceived to be a neutral evaluator of judicial nominees.  So, rating Lawrence as “not qualified” is a severe blow to his nomination. 

When senators inquired if he would be fair toward LGBTQ litigants, Lawrence’s emotions got the better of him.  Choking back tears, he managed to say, “It is a fundamental belief of mine that all people are created in the image of God.  They should all be treated with dignity and respect.” 

No one can honestly and credibly attack VanDyke’s sterling credentials. No one even tries. But attacks on someone’s legal research, writing, and advocacy are not in the playbook for today’s progressive left, which is driven by a militant secularism that worships at the altar of wokeness.

Lawrence VanDyke is a compassionate man with a brilliant intellect who has donated hours and hours of his professional career defending religious liberty.  I hope the senate ignores the ABA’s biased letter and confirms my friend, Lawrence VanDyke.

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

Feb 10, 2020

A Cameron, Missouri, school district superintendent has received a series of complaint letters regarding religious activity in school. However, these letters are rife with unsubstantiated claims and unidentified sources. In order to be taken seriously, legal             demand letters require litigants and facts—not anonymous threats and gripes. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


It should come as no surprise to find religion mixed with sports in America, whether that is Tim Tebow’s eye black or Coach Kennedy’s silent prayer.

However, with these public displays of religions often come needless, often intimidating complaints that are probably better ignored.

A group known for making noisy, public complaints about religion in public life groused to the Cameron R-1 School District in Cameron, Missouri. In a letter bearing the rough semblance of a legal demand letter, the group makes several unsubstantiated claims upon the school’s superintendent, demanding an investigation and that he “take immediate action” to end any religious activity.

But something always seems to be missing with these letters: A litigant.

Fundamentally, unless a lawyer, law firm, or legal organization identifies a plaintiff — a parent and/or student actually aggrieved by any of the alleged conduct attributable to the school district — such a letter amounts to little more than a public gripe.

Federal courts were not established to serve roving bands of censors and scolds. Only those with legitimate, legal standing are permitted to challenge complained-of behavior.

Religious liberty is a hallmark of our nation’s brand of freedom. The free exercise of religion, protected by the First Amendment, guarantees the rights of all citizens to exercise their faith. That freedom should not be casually limited by mere complaints from unidentified sources voiced by those who fund national television advertisements that mock religion.

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

Feb 3, 2020

In a recent speech, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted that his leadership is informed by his Christian faith. Ignoring both the Constitution and precedent, secularists are now accusing him for his “proselytizing religious speech.” Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


We recently discussed Attorney General Barr’s excellent speech on religious liberty.  But, he’s not the only one in the Trump administration talking about religion.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also delivered a speech that progressives found troubling because he dared note that his leadership is informed by his Christian faith.

The fourth in line to the presidency admitted to learning a great deal about leadership while at West Point, in his service in the Army and Congress, and as director of the CIA.  Yet Pompeo  focused on how his faith has informed his leadership.

Secularists now demand that the Inspector General of the United States investigate and punish Secretary Pompeo for his “proselytizing religious speech.” 

It may come as a surprise to some that even civil servants look to their personal faith in making leadership decisions. When those decisions align with calls for social justice and progressive calls for economic equality, the Left celebrates.

Yet, admit that a secretary of state relies upon his faith to be humbler, listen better, and make wiser decisions, and suddenly it crosses the line into a constitutionally dubious attempt to establish an official church of the United States.

Americans of every walk of life — elected or not — are free to be known by their faith in both public and private life. More than that, they are free to rely upon that faith in their disposition, dialogue, and decisions.

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

Jan 27, 2020

Upon receiving a Gospel tract in the mail, New York resident Annmarie Trombetta sued the sender for causing “severe emotional distress” due to “extreme and outrageous         conduct.” Thankfully, a New York trial court concluded that sharing God’s Word isn’t intentionally harmful. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


You will be pleased to know that a New York trial court has declared that proselytizing someone does not rise to the level of the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Back in 2015, Lauren Kruse mailed a religious pamphlet to Annmarie Trombetta.  The pamphlet, also known as a ‘tract,’ featured a cartoon depiction of someone who is sent into the "lake of fire" to "burn in hell" because they did not follow the version of Christianity promoted by the pamphlet which is evangelical Baptist.

Eventually, she learned that Lauren had sent her the tracts. Lauren explained that she was concerned for Annmarie’s eternal soul, along with many others to whom she had sent the tract. 

Annmarie sued Lauren, including a claim for the intentional affliction of emotional distress, which requires a showing of (i) extreme and outrageous conduct; (ii) intent to cause severe emotional distress; (iii) a causal connection between the conduct and injury; and (iv) severe emotional distress. 

Ultimately, the court noted that the “First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the courts of this State from evaluating the religious beliefs of a church or individual,” and, further, “While the court understands why the plaintiff found the tract and email disturbing, the court does not find that the conduct rose to the level of intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

And, for the majority of Americans, that’s a good thing.

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

Jan 20, 2020

Religious exemptions to the Contraceptive Mandate are under attack once again. After several states filed lawsuits against the Trump administration for protecting the rights of religious objectors, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit held that        RFRA does not permit a broad religious exemption from this very mandate. The case now heads to The U.S. Supreme Court. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing


You would think that, in light of the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision a few years ago and the Trump administration’s efforts to undo the so-called contraceptive mandate, the fight over forcing religious adherents to compromise their religious convictions would be over. 

You would be wrong.  First Liberty recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, urging them to review yet another Little Sisters of the Poor case.  This case stems from lawsuits filed by several states, including Pennsylvania and New Jersey, against the Trump administration for providing religious exemptions to the contraceptive mandate. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled against religious objectors, concluding that RFRA does not permit a broad religious exemption from the Contraception Mandate, jeopardizing the exemptions granted to the nuns and others. The Little Sisters appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

We argue in our brief that this decision ignores binding precedent and forces the courts to evaluate the sincerity of an employees’ religious convictions—which is against the law.  Left alone, the Third Circuit’s decision threatens religious freedom by allowing courts to assess which religious convictions are reasonable.

As my colleague, Keisha Russell said when we filed the case, “Enough is enough. The Supreme Court of the United States needs to finally protect Little Sisters of the Poor and all other religious objectors from government-forced violations of their faith.”

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

Jan 13, 2020

Along with many of her peers, Skylar Carson, a student within the Steamboat Springs (CO) School District, was forced to read and analyze explicit lyrics in her “Music   Literature” class. In doing so, her teacher had broken school policy (requiring parental      consent to teach controversial material). No student should have to undergo such treatment—and neither teacher nor school district should get away with it. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Skylar Cason started her school day like any other, by attending her “Music Literature” class.  She left with feelings of guilt and shame no student should be forced to endure while at school.

Steamboat Springs School District teacher Ryan Ayala decided to required students to fill-in-the-blanks in which a district-approved textbook had censored out much of the lewd and vulgar language of the infamous poem, “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg—words mostly used by pornographers. 

Then, he assigned students to analyze the song, “Teenagers take off your clo” which seems to normalize sexting and ends by the singer noting his power over now nude teenagers as he holds their clothes.

None of this came with a warning—not to Skylar, nor to her parents.  School policy permits teachers to instruct on controversial materials, but they are required by that policy to obtain parental permission before they do.  No one at Steamboat Springs School District told Skylar’s parents and, therefore, they could not request an alternative assignment or exercise the option to opt-out in order to protect her religious conscience.

We sent a letter to the superintendent, asking that the teacher be required to apologize for the lack of forewarning and that the entire district undergo several hours of sensitivity training. 

No student should feel guilt or shame—much less have their religious conscience violated by the actions of a teacher.   

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


Jan 6, 2020

While elementary students in Knoxville, Tennessee, can legally opt for Bible study time during their school days, complaints have recently arisen regarding this practice. Critics should recall that The Supreme Court of the United States approved and even commended this tradition in Zorach v. Clauson. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Is it possible for public school students to go to a church or synagogue to receive religious education during the school day?  In fact, yes it is.

Release time education is one such example.  Instruction provided by release time education is not and cannot be provided by the school, and no school support or participation of any kind is allowed—including transportation. No student is required to participate, and no student can participate without specific parental consent and it cannot be held on school property.

In Tennessee, for example, students from Sterchi Elementary School are released during the school day to travel to the Church at Sterchi Hills.  There, some 70 students spend about an hour of time receiving a Bible lesson.

Some will raise complaints about the religious instruction received during release time, but those are entirely unfounded. The Supreme Court of the United States approved the idea almost 70 years ago in a case called Zorach v. Clauson. The Justices recognized that “[w]e are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being” and went on to not only uphold release time programs as perfectly lawful, but further explained that “[w]hen the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it then follows the best of our traditions.” 

So according to the Supreme Court, Bible release time is not merely lawful — it exemplifies what it means to be an American. 

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


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