First Liberty Gives its 2017 Religious Liberty Award at The American Legion National Convention

“Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. Religious Liberty Award”—an engraved Henry Repeating Rifle—is named for the National Judge Advocate of The American Legion and presented at annual Legion convention.

August 25, 2017

First Liberty Institute was pleased to announce United States Senator Ted Cruz as the recipient of the 2017 Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. Religious Liberty Award on Wednesday, August 23.

The Texas senator accepted the award from Kelly Shackelford at The American Legion 2017 National Convention In Reno, Nevada following a speech by President Trump.

Senator Cruz is a longtime ally of religious freedom and a volunteer attorney of First Liberty Institute. While he still worked in private practice, Sen. Cruz donated his time as a volunteer attorney to help First Liberty win key religious liberty cases for veterans. His efforts played a leading role to:

  • Save the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial at the U.S. Supreme Court, when the ACLU sued to tear it down.
  • Restore prayer on Memorial Day, and the right of families to hear comforting phrases such as “God bless you” at veterans’ funerals, when these expressions were banned by government officials at the Houston National Cemetery.

“There’s actually no other lawyer in American that has done more for veterans and veterans’ groups with religious liberty than Ted Cruz,” said Hiram Sasser, First Liberty Deputy Chief Counsel.

Learn more about the Onderdonk award and why Sen. Ted Cruz is 2017’s recipient


Sasser reminisced about working with Sen. Cruz on religious liberty cases.

Whenever First Liberty would call Cruz about the opportunity to volunteer for a new case, “he always answered with, ‘What’s the next plane I need to catch in order to be there?’”

“In two of the marquee religious liberty cases in the country that intersected with veterans issues, Ted Cruz led the charge,” Sasser continued, referencing the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, and his work restoring the freedom to utter religious phrases at veterans’ cemeteries.

When First Liberty first heard about the ACLU’s attempts to tear down the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial, Cruz was the one who insisted they travel to the middle of the desert to see the memorial for themselves, Sasser recalled.

For his part, Cruz says religious liberty has always been a “passion” of his.

“Religious liberty is our first and most foundational individual right, the bedrock upon which all of our other freedoms were built,” he said. “We would not stand for it to be threatened by foreign powers abroad, and we will not stand for it to be compromised from within.”

Cruz also praised First Liberty Institute.

“I love the First Liberty Institute. Kelly and Hiram and the entire team at First Liberty are dear friends, principled patriots, and fearless warriors. They make a real and profound difference every day.”


Every year since 2015, First Liberty has bestowed the Onderdonk award to one exceptional individual for their efforts in the fight for religious liberty.

The award is named after the first recipient. Philip B. Onderdonk, Jr., is the National Judge Advocate of The American Legion and “a hero of religious liberty,” according to First Liberty President Kelly Shackelford.

In 2016, Dan Wheeler, The American Legion’s National Adjutant, received the award. Wheeler displayed “essential” leadership in protecting veterans memorials from “unrelenting attack,” Shackelford said in 2016.

Each year, the recipient receives a Henry Repeating Arms Military Service Tribute Edition .22 caliber lever action commemorative rifle, specially engraved for the award. The rifle is donated by Henry Repeating Arms, a strong supporter of military service members and veterans.

For Shackelford, selecting Sen. Cruz as the third recipient of the Onderdonk award was an obvious choice.

“Sen. Ted Cruz was a clear choice for this award.,” Shackelford said. “Before he ever ran for any office, he donated $100,000s of his time for veterans in our religious liberty cases.”

“I can think of no one who has done more for our veterans and religious liberty,” Shackelford said.

Learn more about the award and the event here.

News and Commentary is brought to you by First Liberty’s team of writers and legal experts.

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