A New York town was at the center of an atheist’s demands to remove religious references from an annual Christmas event. Listen at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Elaine Spaziano organized “Christmas on the Canal” for seventeen years. It became a tradition for most of the residents of Spencerport, New York. But, like every good Christmas story, there was a Grinch.
An atheist complained to city officials about the annual celebration because it included carols, tree lighting, a Nativity scene, and other festivities. In response, the town told Elaine to remove religious references and secularize the event by changing “Christmas” to “Holiday” and getting rid of such displays as the nativity scene. Elaine refused and the town pulled its sponsorship, seemingly ending the annual tradition.
But, not unlike the Who’s down in Whoville, the community rose up in support of the event and provided the necessary funding to continue the annual celebration.
“Christmas on the Canal” continues to this day, though I don’t know if the town sponsors it. Cities across the country need to understand that the law allows your town to sponsor such displays, so long as the displays contain the right mixture of the sacred and secular. Or, as the Supreme Court has said, City-supported Christmas displays are permissible under the Constitution, so long as there is no “endorsement of religious faith” and the display is, as the court noted, “simply a recognition of cultural diversity.”
So, this Christmas don’t let your town be a Scrooge. It’s ok to celebrate Christmas on the town square.
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
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.
When the United Church of Cabot in Vermont asked voters to approve repairs to its historic church building with public funds, they agreed. However, someone raised an objection, but historic church buildings deserve repairs just as much as historic secular buildings. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
In Vermont, the United Church of Cabot needed repairs. Specifically, this historic church asked the voters to consider repairing the steeple, stairwell, along with other minor repairs.
The community uses the building for a variety of meetings and events. The taxpayers were even asked whether public funds—about $10,000—should be used to pay for these repairs. When the voters agreed to the project, someone raised an objection.
A Vermont district court enjoined the repairs, concluding that the state’s constitution categorically prohibits the public funding of houses of worship. But, the Vermont Supreme Court disagreed. In sending the case back to the lower court, it said that the “plaintiffs will have to demonstrate that painting the church building and assessing its sills is more like funding devotional training for future clergy.”
Well, that’s a difficult task. If we have learned anything from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Trinity Lutheran it is that our country’s dedication to separating church and state means neutrality toward religion, rather than hostility. If Vermont expends taxpayer dollars on other historic buildings, it is anything but neutral to refuse funding for an historic church building.
The logic that claims that anything religious must be purged from public participation simply because it is religious is simply wrong, it goes against decades of precedent, and destroys our country’s rich heritage of diversity.
To learn how First Liberty is protecting religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
First Liberty Institute is stepping in after the Metro system in Washington D.C. rejected an advertisement submitted by the Archdiocese of Washington D.C. for being too religious. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
The Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority, Metro for short, ferries commuters by rail and bus throughout the nation’s capitol. In addition to commuters, they also carry advertisements.
And, at Christmas time, those advertisements look very Christmasy: there are Christmas gifts pictured, lots of red and green, and not too few holiday puns designed to persuade you to buy stuff.
The Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. also submitted an advertisement. It pictured a few shepherds and sheep under a starry sky, with the message, “Find the perfect gift” scrolled artfully across the sky. At the website displayed in the ad, one finds out that the perfect gift is Jesus, “the perfect gift of God’s love this Christmas.”
But, Metro rejected the ad. Macy’s and other stores plying the Christmas theme were all right, but according to Metro, there are two halves at Christmas: the secular and the religious. Secular ads are ok, but all religious ads are forbidden.
Yep,Metro will take Santa, but not Jesus, three French hens, but not the three wise men. Even the President’s own remarks at the recent national tree lighting could not appear on the side of a MetroBus.
But, that’s not the law. First Liberty is submitting arguments to courts in Washington, D.C. explaining that what Metro is actually doing is called, “viewpoint discrimination” and it’s a type of hostility towards religion the First Amendment forbids.
In 2012, the Mt. Vernon City Council received a complaint for opening the meeting with prayer. In an effort to satisfy everyone, the prayer took place two minutes before the meeting officially started but that ultimately caused uproar. Learn more about the case at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Back in 2012, as the Mt. Vernon City Council officially gaveled in their monthly meeting, someone offered a prayer. That’s not terribly out of the ordinary. But, something was different this time. This prayer took place at 7:28. The meeting officially started at 7:30. Everyone noticed the change.
You see the city council had received a complaint from a local atheist questioning and disparaging the practice. He even told the local press, “Having a prayer of any faith creates an atmosphere of exclusion.” In response, the council took the prayer off the agenda and moved it ahead two minutes, before official business began.
No one was satisfied. To the atheist, it was still exclusionary. To the rest, it was one more capitulation of driving religion from the public square. The uproar was so great that the city council was compelled to pass a resolution restoring the prayer to the agenda.
Well, the whole thing was avoidable. City councils have been opening their official business with prayer since our country’s beginning. The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed this tradition, most recently explaining in Greece v. Galloway that legislative prayer is “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.”
In other words, cities opening their meetings with prayer are part of who we are as a country.
On the First Liberty Briefing this morning: This decorated Air Force Veteran was forcibly removed from a military retirement ceremony because he was going to mention ‘God!’ Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Oscar Rodriguez is a decorated Air Force Veteran who retired in 2013 after 33 years of service. Oscar was invited by Air Force Master Sergeant Chuck Roberson to give flag-folding speech at a Roberson’s military retirement ceremony—something he has done over 100 times.
Oscar agreed to give his stirring and patriotic speech, but the Air Force Unit Commander at Chuck’s base presented a problem—Oscar’s flag-folding speech included the word “God.”
First, the unit commander tried to prevent Oscar from attending the ceremony. When he was informed that he could not legally prevent his attendance, he told Chuck that Oscar could not give the speech. But like any good Airman, Oscar was not going to abandon his wingman, and he decided to give the speech anyway. And as a private citizen, Oscar is no longer subject to the commander’s authority.
But when Oscar stood to deliver the speech during the retirement ceremony, four senior airmen approached him, assaulted him, and physically dragged him out of the retirement ceremony—before he had a chance to say the word, “God!”
The government has no right to throw a citizen—much less, a 33-year veteran—off a military base because they don’t want him to mention “God.” The Air Force broke the law and abused its power, discriminating against Oscar—and servicemembers everywhere—who want to mention God in their private retirement ceremony.
First Liberty Institute represents Oscar because no one should be assaulted for mentioning the name of God.
For more, and to learn how First Liberty is defending religious liberty for all Americans, visit FirstLiberty.org.
Even in jail the free exercise of religion is protected for all faiths. Numerous cases about inmates asserting their exercise of religion from their cells are received each week, some with more merit than others. However, no matter the circumstance, the right to freely practice and exercise religion is protected, even from a jail cell. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Each week, I get an email with a list of cases about prisoners asserting their right to the free exercise of religion. I find it fascinating that, even in jail, we protect religious liberty. Here’s just a sampling of the cases I see each week.
In Nunez v. Wertz, a Pennsylvania federal court allowed a complaint by a Muslim inmate to move forward after his complaint asserted that he had been denied the right to wear his pant legs rolled up, except during his religious services.
In Illinois, a federal court allowed an inmate to move forward with his assertion that the prison was not providing him with a diet consistent with his Native American religious beliefs.
In Gambino v. Payne, a magistrate recommended dismissing the case of an inmate converting to Judaism. Apparently, the free exercise clause was not sufficient to protect against his complaint of inadequate privacy in the showers.
Finally, a catholic inmate in California is allowed to amend his complaint, but the court dismissed his original complaint. Evidently, the court was not inclined to let him leave confinement to attend a funeral.
Some cases appear to have less merit than others. Inmates sometimes have little else to do but file lawsuits. Nonetheless, judges take complaints of the denial of religious liberty seriously—even if that denial comes from a jail cell.
One litigant argues that the tax code creates the new religion of “taxism” in violation of the First Amendment. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Ben Franklin reportedly said, “There is nothing certain in life except for death and taxes.” Well, in a 548-page complaint, one man has targeted at least one of those certainties, and it’s not death.
Terry Lee Hinds contends that the United States Tax Code has violated the Constitution by establishing “taxism,” an institutionalized faith and religion. Because the tax code has the effect of favoring and even promoting organized religions through tax breaks and other benefits, Mr. Hinds believes the tax code is in violation of the First Amendment.
Well, I suppose this is the sort of case that law students are forced to grapple with, but actually have little effect in the real world. Some may dream such a lawsuit is the silver bullet to bring down our ghoulish tax system. Alas, Mr. Hinds’ lawsuit will not free us from the taxman’s visit every April 15.
For one reason, taxpayers have a lot of hurdles to overcome just to bring the lawsuit. Mere allegations—even ones dressed up in the garb of a First Amendment challenge—that they do not like to pay taxes will not be sufficient.
For now, Mr. Hinds and the rest of us will have to continue to pay our taxes and, most importantly, the religious charities and houses of worship that are exempt from them will continue to be exempt.
When the government’s interest in timbering led to the destruction of land traditionally used by Native Americans for religious purposes, the Supreme Court ruled against the Native Americans. The opinion read, “Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the [land in question did] not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.” Learn more: Firstliberty.org/Briefing.
In 1987, the Supreme Court was asked whether timbering operations within a National Park over a portion of land traditionally used for religious purposes by Native Americans violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
Justice O’Connor’s opinion in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Associationconcluded that “Whatever rights the Indians may have to the use of the [land in question did] not divest the Government of its right to use what is, after all, its land.”
But, not all the justices agreed. Justice Brennan, joined by Justices Marshall and Blackmun, disagreed. He reasoned that the timbering in question threatened the “very existence of a Native American religion.” He concluded on a somber note, “Today, the Court holds that a federal land-use decision that promises to destroy an entire religion does not burden the practice of that faith in a manner recognized by the Free Exercise Clause . . . I find it difficult, however, to imagine conduct more insensitive to religious needs . . ..”
Thirteen years later, Congress would pass the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. At the least, RLUIPA would’ve required the government to demonstrate that its actions were the least restrictive in pursuit of a compelling government interest.
RLUIPA, like RFRA, insists that government actions substantially burdening the free exercise of religion receive heightened scrutiny. That protects all of our religious liberty.
The city of Austin, Texas targeted a Christian Pregnancy Resource Center by forcing the ministry to post signs disclaiming the services they did not perform, while pro-abortion groups were not required to post any sign or disclaimer. Learn more about how we fought and won the case at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
In 2010, the City of Austin, Texas—a town that takes pride in keeping itself weird—passed an ordinance that targeted pro-life, Christian pregnancy resource centers.
These centers, as you may guess, care for women during their pregnancies, helping them with parenting and other resources, but were, out of conviction, opposed to the concept of abortion. But, the City of Austin thought that was tooweird and, by its ordinance, forced the pro-life resource centers to post signs at their entrance disclaiming the services they did not perform, while pro-abortion groups were not required to post any sign or disclaimer.
First Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit seeking to invalidate that ordinance on behalf of three pregnancy resource centers. The argument was pretty simple: the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment prevents the city governments from compelling the speech of religious organizations like these pregnancy centers and, by requiring the disclaimers by religious organizations while exempting secular organizations, cities violate the First Amendment’s religion clauses.
Well, it took a few years of litigation, but those unconstitutional ordinances in Austin are gone. Cities contemplating the idea of following Austin’s example should be advised that not only will they lose in court, like the City of Austin, you will have to pay our attorney fees for such illegal action.
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.
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 most people, a pay raise suggests the recognition of hard work and appreciation from your company. However, after organizing his fellow law professors into a union, Sheldon Gelman lost committee appointments and soon his wife, Jean Lifter, was fired. Gelman received a raise, but the number caught everyone’s attention. Learn more: FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
You probably have a similar opinion about pay raises that Sheldon Gelman and Jean Lifter did: they’re symbolic. Do a good job, and an increase in pay suggests that the company is grateful for the effort.
Gelman and Lifter were law professors at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law. Gelman organized his fellow law professors into a union with the support of Lifter, his wife, and over the objections of management. The next Spring, the faculty, Gelman included, received a pay raise, but Gelman lost some committee appointments and, soon after, Lifter was terminated altogether.
One wouldn’t think much of it, but the dollar amount on the pay increase caught everyone’s attention. It was too intriguing to be coincidental. The newly organized union faculty received a raise of $666. Taken alongside Gelman’s loss of committee influence and Lifter’s termination, the numerals seemed to send a message. Gelman and Lifter sued alleging retaliation against a protected First Amendment freedom.
But, the Unite States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wasn’t buying it. There were simple explanations for the pay raise amounting to apocalyptic numbers. And, while Gelman’s union organizing was certainly protected by the First Amendment, there were no facts present to suggest the law school retaliated against him for doing so.
The lesson here is clear: if your paycheck shows the supposed “Mark of the Beast,” don’t assume your employer violated the First Amendment.
Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania had a policy for all employees to receive mandatory flu shots unless an employee can provide a medical or religious reason. But, some employees didn’t get an exception, even though they requested one for religious reasons. Learn what happened to the health center and the employees at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
No one really likes getting a flu shot. But, like it or not, for those in healthcare, it’s often required.
That was the policy of Saint Vincent Health Center in Erie, Pennsylvania: mandatory flu shots for all employees—unlessan employee can provide a medical or religious reason. The policy worked pretty well. If an employee had an exception, they were given a facemask, which they wore while interacting with patients. For those religious objectors, this was a great religious accommodation.
But, some employees didn’t get an exception, even though they requested one for religious reasons. Six of the employees who were denied an exception for religiousreasons were fired. But, the fourteen employees citing medical reasons were not.
That’s a problem. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stepped in on behalf of the fired employees and now the hospital has to pay $300,000 to compensate the employees for their lost jobs.
It’s really too bad it had to come to this. The hospital had a great policy and a reasonable accommodation for employees with a religious objection to the vaccine. But, they didn’t follow their own policy and ended up treating religious employees unfairly.
So, employers, let this be a good reminder: have a policy that accommodates the religious beliefs of your employees…and then make sure you follow it.
The new U.S. Attorney Manual’s new section on religious liberty is going to help protect religious liberty for all Americans and will strengthen all of our core freedoms. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
The U.S. Department of Justice recently announced that it will update the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, creating a new section giving special attention to religious liberty.
Updates to such a manual are sometimes viewed as routine, but they tend to reflect the values and priorities of the Department of Justice, and function as a sort of roadmap for the department’s coming years.
The updates announced in the new manual requires the nation’s U.S. Attorneys to not only identify a dedicated point of contact on litigation having to do with religious liberty, but also requires coordination of any such litigation directly with the central office in Washington, D.C. In other words, Attorney General Sessions is announcing that his office will be very hands-on in lawsuits involving our “First Freedom.”
When the Department of Justice announced the updated U.S. Attorneys’ Manual, then Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand explained, “Religious liberty is an inalienable right protected by the Constitution, and defending it is one of the most important things we do at the Department of Justice.”
Clearly, the days of abandoning protections in the law for religious liberty — including bipartisan laws like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — may be a thing of the past. The critical leadership of the attorney general and his staff to protect religious liberty for all Americans will do much to strengthen all of our core freedoms.
The Liberty Christian Center in Watertown, New York, asked for permission to use the Watertown High School Cafeteria for its religious services. The local school board denied the application and use of school property. Learn what the Constitution says about the issue at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
The Liberty Christian Center in Watertown, New York, asked for permission to use the Watertown High School Cafeteria for its religious services.
As their application stated, the worship services to be conducted in the public school cafeteria would include activities of music, religious instruction, and Christian testimony. But, the local school board denied the application, stating that, since New York law did not specifically authorize religious organizations to utilize public school buildings, the application had to be denied.
The court reviewed previous uses of the public school cafeteria. It found that among other uses, the school had been used to host a “Local Talent Night” which featured religious music, religious instruction, and even Christian testimony. Since both the worship service and the local talent show shared a religious purpose and context, it was unlawful for the school to permit the talent show, but deny the use of the facility for a worship service.
Some decry the use of a public school by a religious organization as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. That is simply not true. The First Amendment demands that a school board be neutral toward religion. Letting a secular organization use school property, but denying a religious organization the same use, is not neutrality, it’s hostility.
Billy Graham has a long-standing history of sharing the Gospel all over the world, including at publically owned venues. Today, those same venues are preventing two Christian football teams from praying over a city – owned microphone. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
America was saddened to learn of the loss of Billy Graham. Some have openly wondered whether history will ever witness another like him. The better question to ask at this point in our history may be, “Can there be another Billy Graham?”
Graham’s crusades were public expressions of faith, many times taking place on public property. In 1952, Graham’s crusade visited Washington, D.C.Graham held services on the very steps of the United States Capitol, enlisting supportive government officials to secure the permission needed for such an event.
He would go on to preach at dozens of the country’s most historic and publicly-owned venues, including what is today known as Camping World Stadium.
In 2015, the football teams from two Christian schools in Florida faced off in that same stadium where, in 1969 and again in 1983, Billy Graham stood to share his Gospel message with thousands in attendance. Incredibly, these two religious schools were denied use of the city-owned microphone to pray over the same loudspeaker once used to amplify the disarming, baritone voice of Billy Graham as he preached and prayed.
If the First Amendment does not protect the right of two Christian schools to pray for 30 seconds over a city-owned loudspeaker in 2015, can it protect the next Billy Graham who wants to use the same public address system in the same stadium?
After five years, a group of high school cheerleaders won their case in court after being told they could not put Bible versus on break through football banners. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
It was Friday night and the lights in Texas shone down on the field. The Kountze High School football team was about to smash through a banner and onto the field.
Holding the banner were the Kountze High School cheerleaders. Negative slogans like “Beat the bulldogs” were a thing of the past. These cheerleaders wanted to be positive. So, they looked to the Bible for a positive message they could communicate instead.
But, the school said the new banner message had to go. They had received a complaint and could not afford to take any chances. But, the cheerleaders were not about to give up.
First Liberty Institute stepped in and, for the next 5 years, represented the young women. The school argued that since the banner was on school property, the message—chosen entirely by the students and displayed on paper the student purchased and painted—was government speech and that couldn’t be religious without violating the constitution.
The court disagreed. No reasonable person would conclude that the message—scrawled in student script and held aloft by students—could be an official message of the state. Instead, the student’s message was private speech, entitled to the protections of the First Amendment.
Matthews v. Kountze Independent School District stands for the important principal that schools cannot censor, ban, or claim ownership to the private religious speech of its students.
Many know about Aaron and Melissa Klein, the bakers in Oregon who lost their bakery and were fined $135,000 because they politely refused to bake a cake that conflicted with their religious convictions. But the media doesn’t show the attacks the Kleins have faced from those in their community. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
You probably know the story of Aaron and Melissa Klein, the bakers in Oregon forced out of business and fined $135,000 by the state when they politely declined business that would have forced them to violate their religious convictions.
What you may not know is that, after the State of Oregon pronounced them guilty of discrimination, private citizens were eager to show their contempt for the Kleins.
Many of the comments they received are so vulgar that I cannot repeat them here. But, here is a tame sampling.
One person, writing on Facebook said to the Kleins, “I hope your shop burns.” Another chimed in, noting that she hoped Aaron and Melissa would “burn in Hell.”
One man sent a message that said, “I hope you lose your house and have to live on the streets.” One woman even said, “We hope your children get cancer and die.”
When the government declares that citizens like Aaron and Melissa are not entitled to the Constitution’s promises of religious liberty and free speech, its people push aside any goodwill that allows people to coexist peacefully with beliefs with which they may disagree.
Aaron and Melissa have asked the Oregon Supreme Court to review their case. We hope the court will accept the appeal, if only to remind everyone that it is possible to live peacefully as neighbors even when we disagree.
Despite most residents being unable to identify their county seal, a federal district court ruled that the county seal of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania is unconstitutional. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
Most residents of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, probably have no idea what their county seal looks like.
It has a cow, factories, a silo, an oil lamp set on two books, a courthouse, flags and bunting, and more. Recently, a federal district court reluctantly declared the seal unconstitutional because, centered in the background of it all, is a cross.
According to the court’s opinion:
“The County has not . . . legally compelled its citizens to practice and conform to Christianity, infringed on freedom of conscience, or created political conflict between the Christian Church and other religious sects. Simply put, the County of Lehigh did not intend to ‘establish’ religion or institute a County religion.”
And, so, the court concluded:
“Lehigh County’s Seal is a passive symbol that does not coerce any citizen to practice or adhere to Christianity, and does not establish a county religion. Thus, the Seal does not violate the plain text of the Establishment Clause. Nor does it establish religion in the way the drafters of the First Amendment imagined. Higher courts, however, have delineated a different mechanism by which the court must determine whether the Seal survives constitutional scrutiny. While the court may not fully agree with the test provided, the court must apply that test.”
Well, we can only hope an appeal will change that test.
In 1998, Christian Heritage Academy was denied membership to the Oklahoma Secondary School Athletic Association because of a policy it held permitting them to deny membership on a whim. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
It’s fair to say that the State of Oklahoma takes high schools sports pretty seriously. The Oklahoma Secondary School Athletic Association, or OSSAA, regulates high school sports. Public schools are admitted freely, but private schools must apply for membership.
In 1998, Christian Heritage Academy, known widely for its 8-man football team, applied to be a member of OSSAA, but were denied. They applied again in 1999, but the majority of members rejected them a second time. That was enough for them and the school filed a lawsuit in 2003 alleging that they had been denied the equal protection of the law and deprived of their First Amendment freedoms.
The court concluded that OSSAA’s rules were discriminatory. By stating that a majority of members could simply reject religious schools over secular schools for any reason or none at all, the court found there was no legitimate purpose served. OSSAA members could, the court noted, reject applications for membership “for any reason, including dislike or distrust.”
Of course, the court was willing to allow OSSAA to chart its own membership, but it had to be fair. Creating a system that allowed ample room for members to reject religious school just because they did not like them was not enough.
The court’s point is clear: the First Amendment requires precision. When the state acts without precision, rights can be quickly abused.
When two private Christian schools were forbade by the Florida High School Athletic Association to pray prior to a championship game, First Liberty Institute filed an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
In 2015, the Florida High School Athletic Association forbade Cambridge Christian School from praying over the loudspeaker of the Citrus Bowl ahead of the state championship football game, even though both participating teams were Christian schools and each had a tradition of prayer before games.
Praying over the loudspeaker allows students on the field, and their parents and fans in the stands, to unite prior to kickoff. But, the FHSAA believes it violates the constitution.
First Liberty Institute filed an appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on behalf of Cambridge Christian School. We argue that by banning two private Christian schools from praying over the loudspeaker before a football game while allowing other, non-religious messages to come across the same speaker, the FHSAA is telling high school kids that prayer in public is wrong.
We hope the Eleventh Circuit will recognize this for what it is: the censorship of religious speech—because it is religious—of two private, Christian schools.
First they told religious students that if you want to pray in school, then you have to attend a private, religious school. They did, but even then they have been told they cannot pray in public. Where else do these religious students have to go? Must they now form their own league in order to exercise the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution?
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.
Universities across America display plaques recognizing donors and their generous donations as well as famous quotes of figures such as Aristotle and Plato. And yet, when Dr. Mike McCracken wanted the plaque in the new conference room that his donations had paid for to reference “God’s physical law” he was denied as the University insisted that such mention would violate the Constitution. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.
“To those who seek to better the world through the understanding of God’s physical laws and innovation of practical solutions.” That was the inscription Dr. Mike McCracken wanted on the plaque of the new conference room, paid for by his donations to Purdue University and placed in honor of the people who inspired him the most: his parents.
But, the university rejected the language. According to their legal analysis, the inclusion of the phrase, “God’s physical laws” could be seen as an endorsement of religion, violating the Constitution.
There are dozens of plaques throughout the campus. Most identify alumni or donors. In the student center, a large display of plaques features the bronze images of past presidents and a quote of theirs. There are quotes from past graduates, like Neil Armstrong, and even plaques with quotes from Socrates and Aristotle.
So, why would the university proudly display plaques featuring quotes from astronauts, ancient philosophers, and past presidents, but refuse an alumnus wishing to honor his parents with a passing reference to “God’s laws”? Good question.
By permitting plaques to display secular quotations, but refusing religious references, the university was committing what we call viewpoint discrimination. But, after a letter pointing that out and some discussions over the phone, Purdue agreed to redo the plaque to make it clear that that reference to “God’s physical laws” was coming from Dr. McCracken and not the university.
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 at 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.”