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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: June, 2020
Jun 29, 2020

Rhode Island Police banned an elderly blind woman from visiting her local park because she was handing out copies of the Gospel of John. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


Gail Blair was a nurse at Johns Hopkins.  But, she walked away from nursing in 1989 and toward an unexpected encounter with the police.

A degenerative condition that causes gradual vision loss drove Gail away from nursing.  At just 37 years of age, she could no longer see.  She and her husband moved to a place just about a block away from Wilcox Park and Westerly Public Library.  She learned how to independently navigate the sidewalks that lead to and from her home and sit in the park.

As passersby strolled past in this 10-acre park, Gail would engage them in conversation, telling them about Jesus and sharing with them a copy of the Gospel of John.  In 2019, park authorities accused this 63-year old blind woman of “accosting” park goers and blamed her for littering when they found copies of the Gospel of John on the ground.  They asked the police to ban her from the park under threat of arrest if she were to trespass in the future. 

Sighted persons are free to cross into the park and have conversations with anyone, but park officials called the police on a blind woman who shared her faith with others.

First Liberty and its network attorneys filed a charge of discrimination with the Rhode Island Commission on Human Rights because banning a blind woman from entering a public park simply because she offers people she meets religious material is outrageous and discriminatory. 

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

Jun 22, 2020

A newly naturalized citizen, Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo sued Congress claiming that the phrase “so help me God” in her naturalization ceremony was a violation of the Establishment Clause. However, the courts did not agree. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


America’s newest citizens start their official lives as Americans with the words, “so help me God.”  One new citizen took advantage of her new rights as an American to sue Congress.

Olga Paule Perrier-Bilbo sued Congress claiming that those four little words—"so help me God”—violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution.  She asked a court to invalidate the phrase and enjoin its use during her naturalization ceremony.  The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected that request.

The First Circuit concluded that, “Recent developments in Establishment Clause jurisprudence . . . suggest that the mere presence of a historical pattern now carries more weight.” 

One of those “recent developments” was First Liberty’s case at the Supreme Court of the United States: American Legion v. AHA.  Judge Juan Torruella, writing for the First Circuit, concluded that American Legion approves the use of “so help me God” because such words are “a ceremonial, longstanding practice” that lack “a discriminatory intent” and, therefore, bear a presumption of constitutionality.  

Thus, thanks to the American Legion case, and the analysis of Judge Torruella, these four words that have joined the 136 other words to make up this nearly 100-year old oath will be among the first words America’s newest citizens get to say well in to the future.

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

Jun 15, 2020

South Bay United Pentecostal Church in California asked the United States Supreme Court to invalidate a state ban on the size of religious gatherings of more than ten people.  Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


The COVID-19 pandemic gave the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court something to think about—and not just washing their hands.

In South Bay United Pentecostal Church v. Newsom, a church asked the court to invalidate the State of California’s ban on religious gatherings of more than ten people.  On the eve of the Supreme Court’s review of that claim, Governor Gavin Newsom expanded that limitation to 25% of a church’s occupancy or 100 people, whichever is fewer. 

Four of the Justices agreed that California’s restrictions treated places of worship less favorably than comparable secular businesses. 

Justice Kavanaugh, writing for Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, wondered why churches were required to cap attendance at 100 people or 25% when “factories, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, retail stores, pharmacies, shopping malls, pet grooming shops, bookstores, florists, hair salons, and cannabis dispensaries” did not.

“The Church and its congregants” Justice Kavanaugh wrote, “simply want to be treated equally to comparable secular businesses.”  And, since “California already trusts its residents and any number of businesses to adhere to proper social distancing and hygiene practices,” he observed, why not churchgoers?

In the end, the case becomes something of an academic exercise, binding only on the parties to the case.  Still, it’s quite concerning that only four of the nine Justices of the nation’s highest court would conclude, as Justice Kavanaugh did that California “may not discriminate against religion” even in a pandemic.

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

Jun 8, 2020

Governing public health is an important task, but it is not more important than following the Constitution. If people can practice social distancing and go to Kroger or Home Depot, then they should be allowed to gather in a similar fashion for their weekly religious service. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


“But what of that enduring Constitution in times like these? Does it mean something different because society is desperate for a cure or prescriptions?”

Those are among the opening words of Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove, a federal judge of a federal district court in Kentucky, as he issued a temporary restraining order on behalf of Tabernacle Baptist Church. 

We filed for a TRO in that case because Kentucky’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak had prevented in-person religious gatherings, but did not restrict other secular gatherings like it.  So, while Kentuckians could visit their local grocery store or hardware store, following proper social distancing measures, they could not employ the same social distancing measures and attend in-person religious meetings. 

To that, Judge Tatenhove said, “If social distancing is good enough for Home Depot and Kroger, it is good enough for in-person religious services which, unlike the foregoing, benefit from constitutional protection.”

Certainly, protecting the public health is an important task of governing, but not if it comes at the expense of the Constitution.  As Judge Tatenhove put it, “It would be easy to put [the Constitution] on the shelf in times like this, to be pulled down and dusted off when more convenient.  But that is not our tradition.  Its enduring quality requires that it be respected even when it is hard.”

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

Jun 1, 2020

Governor Andy Beshear and others have been preventing in person worship services despite churches’ willingness to adhere to social distancing and appropriate hygiene guidelines while allowing gyms, stores and the like to re-open. Learn more at FirstLiberty.org/Briefing.


It seems that some state officials think that Americans who go to church only go to church. 

Maybe that’s an overstatement, but it at least appears that Governor Andy Beshear, and others, treat religious Americans differently.  The lockdowns associated with COVID-19 suggest that some officials think that Americans are capable of shopping safely, but religious Americans are incapable of worshipping safely. 

In a per curiam decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit wondered at this distinction.  The litigants, church members, simply wanted to be treated equally.  The court said, “They are willing to practice social distancing.  They are willing to follow any hygiene requirements.” And, yet, the Court explained, “The Governor has offered no good reason for refusing to trust the congregants who promise to use care in worship in just the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and laundromat workers to do the same.”

Then the Court asked this, “aren’t the two groups of people often the same people—going to work on one day and going to worship on another?  How can the same person be trusted to comply with social-distancing and other health guidelines in secular settings but not be trusted to do the same in religious settings?”

The Sixth Circuit enjoined Governor Beshear’s order preventing in-person worship services.  After all, the Constitution knows no exception for a pandemic. 

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

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