Even though 2015 saw more attacks on religious freedom than any year in our nation’s history, First Liberty Institute maintained a 90 percent win rate with several key victories—the ripple affects of which will have positive impacts for years to come.
First Liberty Institute attorneys personally handled more than 400 religious liberty matters in 2015—a record for the organization. First Liberty Institute also participated on the front lines in pivotal events that will significantly influence this history of America—or already are.
As First Liberty Institute prepares for another record-breaking year in 2016, here’s a review of the major victories, events, and highlights of 2015.
2015’s LEGAL VICTORIES, HIGHLIGHTS, AND EVENTS
- Liberty Institute won a legal victory for Jewish Congregation Toras Chaim of Dallas, Texas, after a local homeowners association sued the synagogue for gathering to meet in a member’s home. “I am incredibly thankful that Liberty Institute successfully defended our case,” Rabbi Yaakov Rich said at the time, “and that the law has upheld our right to live out our faith within our homes.” Since the victory in February, the City of Dallas filed a separate lawsuit against Congregation Toras Chaim. First Liberty Institute continues to defend the congregation and its right to meet for worship.
- On behalf of The American Legion, First Liberty Institute intervened into a lawsuit challenging the Pledge of Allegiance and was successful in having the case dismissed. The legal battle began when the American Humanist Association sued a New Jersey school district for conducting daily, voluntary recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in its schools, in accordance with New Jersey Law. First Liberty Institute represented local, state, and national branches of The American Legion, and filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which the Superior Court of New Jersey, Monmouth County granted.
- Jeff Mateer, General Counsel for First Liberty Institute,delivered an important message at a pastors’ conference in Pennsylvania of more than 500 pastors, church leaders, and other activists. Foreshadowing the coming threats to churches and religious organizations that proved true in 2015, Mateer informed attendees at the pastors’ conference about their religious liberty rights.
- Liberty Institute filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief to the United States Supreme Court in April on behalf of 20 major national Christian religious organizations, public speakers, and scholars in the historic Obergefell v. Hodges case. Liberty Institute’s brief warned of potentially harmful ramifications that a decision in favor of same-sex marriage would have on free speech and religious exercise rights. Liberty Institute argued that the First Amendment Free Speech Clause protects ministers, teachers, and speakers who are compelled by faith and conscience to preach and speak aloud their sincerely-held religious view that marriage is the sacred union of one man and one woman.
- Liberty Institute successfully defended Mackenzie Fraiser, a sixth-grader who was told she could not include a Bible verse in a class assignment. Somerset Academy of Las Vegas, Nevada, told Mackenzie she was not allowed to include John 3:16 on the “inspirational saying” slide of her assigned “All About Me” presentation. Liberty Institute immediately sent a demand letter to the school explaining Mackenzie’s rights. The school quickly responded with a written apology, and permitted Mackenzie to resubmit her original presentation, including the Bible verse.
- The Supreme Court of the United States unanimously recognized the importance of religious liberty in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Though same-sex marriage was legalized in the five-four decision, all nine Justices reaffirmed Americans’ First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty. Justice Kennedy made a significant recognition of the importance of religious freedom, echoing Liberty Institute’s amicus brief from April by explaining why religious liberty must be protected.
- Liberty Institute attorneys, staff, and clients participated in a Rally for Religious Liberty in Des Moines, Iowa, with over 2,500 people in attendance. Liberty Institute was one of only two non-profit legal organizations invited to participate, with President and CEO Kelly Shackelford opening the event with a personal video message. Additionally, August was the month that religious liberty emerged as a hot-button issue for presidential candidates, coming up in debates, rallies, and speaking events.
- The U.S. Navy exonerated decorated Chaplain Wes Modder, rejecting the attempt to relieve him from his duties in its entirety, and eradicating the threat to end Chaplain Modder’s 20-year Navy career. This decision affirmed the religious liberty of military chaplains to teach, minister, and counsel according to their belief system—a freedom that should never be contested.
- The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit shook things up as the first federal court to reject the government’s arguments in favor of the HHS Abortion Pill Mandate. The Court held that faith-based non-profit ministries cannot be forced to provide abortion-inducing drugs in violation of their beliefs. This circuit split led to the Supreme Court’s determination to rule on the legality of the HHS Mandate imposed on religious non-profits. Two of Liberty Institute’s cases are awaiting the Supreme Court’s precedent setting decision next year, Insight For Living and Christian Missionary Alliance cases.
- At the 2015 Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., Liberty Institute championed religious freedom before 2,500 attendees. Kelly Shackelford was featured in a press conference, clients Chaplain Wes Modder and student Liz LoVerde (founder of her Long Island High School’s “Dare to Believe” Christian Club, defended by Liberty Institute), and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), a former Liberty Institute volunteer attorney, came out to support religious rights at the event. At the event, Liberty Institute also announces the release of our printed and online Religious Liberty Protection Kits for Churches, Ministries, Christian Schools, Public Schools, and the Military, a free resource for these groups to use in protecting themselves from litigation.
- The nation erupted in public support of high school football coach Joe Kennedy, who was suspended from his coaching job for personally praying after football games. TV and movie celebrities, NFL stars, presidential candidates and major ministry leaders all publicly supported Coach Kennedy and his constitutional right to pray. Liberty Institute is still defending Coach Kennedy.
- Liberty Institute successfully defended two historic churches and their congregations in Houston, Texas’ Fifth Ward after the Houston Housing Authority attempted to seize their properties. “This is a significant victory for churches everywhere, and a lesson for government authorities at all levels—that you can’t just take a church’s property for the purpose of increasing tax revenue or public use,” said Kelly Shackelford after the three-month legal battle. Both churches are now free to continue their vital ministries in the underprivileged neighborhood.
- A federal court ruled the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial was constitutional, despite its cross shape. The decision came after Liberty Institute and volunteer counsel filed a motion for summary judgment on behalf of The American Legion, which originally helped fund the memorial. The American Humanist Association appealed the decision shortly after, but Liberty Institute continues to defend the Bladensburg Memorial. According to Liberty Institute attorneys, the precedent set by this case could be a game-changer in the battle for veterans’ memorials everywhere.
MOVING FORWARD: PROTECTING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOR ALL
Liberty Institute achieved victories in every area of focus in 2015—the military, churches, schools, and the pubic arena. And even though Liberty Institute attorneys handled nearly double the amount of legal matters as 2014, they maintained a victory rate of over 90 percent.
The legal victories and important events of 2015 give Liberty Institute—and all Americans of faith—an even stronger foundation to stand on as the fight to protect religious freedom continues in 2016. Though hostility to religious expression in America is increasing, so are the numbers of informed people who are determined to stand for their freedom.
Coming Soon: What to Look for in 2016
About Liberty Institute
- First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit www.FirstLiberty.org.