Why Court Victories are Key to Protecting Religious Freedom

Poll reveals Americans are losing confidence in the government’s defense of religious liberty

January 8, 2016

A poll released by the Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research last week exposes an important trend—Americans are trusting the government less and less to safeguard their religious freedom.

Those Americans are right to reserve their trust. Though many people are just now admitting that the government’s defense of religious freedom is wavering at best, time has already revealed that the key to victory lies somewhere else—in the courts.

At First Liberty, many of America’s most skilled constitutional attorneys have been standing up for the rights of Americans to practice their religion freely for nearly two decades. Litigating at every court level, these attorneys have also seen attacks on religious freedom from every government level—from discriminatory city policies to prejudicial federal agendas.


Released on December 30, the AP-NORC poll found that Americans’ trust in the government to protect their religious freedom sharply declined in the last four years.

A similar survey by AP-NORC in 2011 revealed that 75 percent of Americans were pleased with the government’s protection of their religious liberty. Last week’s poll found that only 55 percent are confident that the government is protecting their rights.

These figures come at little surprise. In 2015 alone, First Liberty saw more requests for legal assistance than ever before, with President and CEO Kelly Shackelford acknowledging that it was the most hostile year to religious liberty in the nation’s history.

Many of First Liberty’s clients are victims of governmental hostility. For example,

  • The City of Dallas filed a lawsuit against Jewish Congregation Toras Chaim for holding meetings in a member’s home on the Sabbath. First Liberty’s defense of the congregation is still ongoing.
  • The City of Houston attempted to seize the properties of two historic churches in the City’s Fifth Ward, threatening to bulldoze one of the church buildings to the ground. First Liberty secured victory for both churches last fall.
  • The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is attempting to force faith-based non-profit ministries to violate their faith by adhering to Obamacare’s “Abortion Pill Mandate.” First Liberty is defending Insight for Living Ministries and retirement communities and colleges of the Christian Missionary Alliance in their request to be exempt from the mandate. First Liberty is also filing an amicus brief before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of these ministries.
  • Government officials in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana issued a criminal sanctions to a church’s pastor and harassed the church’s members for services that were “too loud,” while simultaneously ignoring louder noises in the neighborhood like power tools and demolition machines. First Liberty is standing up for them now.
  • The Georgia Department of Health fired Dr. Eric Walsh from his position as a District Health Director for sermons he preached as a lay-pastor during his personal time on the weekends. First Liberty is still pursuing Dr. Walsh’s religious discrimination claims

These are just a sample of First Liberty’s clients who have faced governmental intimidation—not to mention the many other stories of religious discrimination by government authorities that may never make the news.

Though candidates who support religious liberty can be game-changers if elected, their influence can extend only so far. But a precedent-setting court victory—or court loss—could change the religious freedom game for generations. In fact, they already have.


In recent history, several key court decisions established authoritative standards for applying the law when it comes to religious liberty issues.

  • Tinker v. Des Moines, Iowa, 1969
    Ironically, the Iowa American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped win this victory for students whose Quaker beliefs led them to protest the Vietnam War in their public school. In the majority opinion, Justice Abe Fortas wrote,It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.The decision has since been used to defend the free speech and religious expression rights of thousands of public school students, and First Liberty references the ruling repeatedly in its many cases defending students who were wrongly punished. Read more about this case in Kelly Shackelford’s book, Supreme Irony. Download it for free here.
  • Thomas Van Orden v. Rick Perry, 2005
    First Liberty served alongside the attorney general of Texas, filing an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court case Van Orden v. Perry, which reaffirmed that the Ten Commandments monument outside the Texas Capitol is constitutional. Chief Judge William H. Rehnquist argued in the plurality opinion, “simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause.” The decision has seen been used to defend other monuments with religious imagery on public grounds.
  • Gonzales v. O Centro, 2006
    First Liberty included an argument in its amicus brief  which was adopted in the United States Supreme Court’s decision and became precedent expanding religious freedom protection nationwide.
  • HEB Ministries, Inc. v. Tex. Higher Educ. Coordinating Bd., 2007
    First Liberty won a total victory at the Texas Supreme Court, protecting Texas seminaries and religious higher educational institutions from state government control.
  • Westbrook v. Penley, 2007
    The “church autonomy” doctrine was established for the first time in Texas state history, when First Liberty successfully defended a church prosecuted for conducting internal operations according to its doctrinal standards.
  • Bar v. Sinton, 2009
    In August of 2001, First Liberty represented Pastor Rick Barr and his nonprofit halfway house ministry, Philemon Homes, in a lawsuit against the City of Sinton, Texas after the City imposed an ordinance that banned Philemon Homes from operating within city limits. The case made its way to the Texas Supreme Court where, in 2009, First Liberty won a monumental victory for Pastor Barr and Philemon Homes. It was the first case in Texas history to interpret the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA), which has since been used as a nationwide model in protecting religious freedom.
  • Opulent Life Church; Telsa DeBerry v. City of Holly Springs, Mississippi., 2012
    In a landmark decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, First Liberty defeated the City’s hostile zoning ordinances targeting churches which permitted members of Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs, Miss. to expand into their new location.  This important precedent has been vital in defending churches and houses of worship throughout America from discriminatory City ordinances.
  • Salazar v. Buono, 2012
    A First Liberty victory in the U.S. Supreme Court permanently ended legal attacks against a cross-shaped veterans memorial in the Mojave Desert. The victory has since been referenced in the defense of other veteransveterans’ memorials.


The government’s growing hostility to religious freedom is disconcerting, as the Americans polled in the AP-NORC survey last week can affirm. But that doesn’t mean that hope for religious freedom is lost.

Since its founding, First Liberty maintains a victory rate of over 90 percent at all court levels.

As the nation enters what will undoubtedly be another of the toughest years for religious freedom yet, First Liberty, its staff, and its top-notch volunteer attorneys are determined to make 2016 another precedent-setting year of victory.

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