Each year at The American Legion’s National Convention, First Liberty Institute bestows the Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. Religious Liberty Award to one exceptional individual for his or her efforts to defend religious liberty.
The recipient of the 2021 Onderdonk Religious Liberty Award this year is the Northeast POW/MIA Network. These heroes have been selected because of their courage amidst their ongoing legal battle to keep a Bible on their Remembrance Display at the Manchester (NH) Veterans Affairs Medical Center. In an affront to the religious liberty of our nation’s veterans, an outside group filed a lawsuit demanding that a Bible—donated by a WWII veteran—be removed from this table. For over two years since the lawsuit began, the Northeast POW/MIA Network has remained committed to protecting religious liberty for veterans—and that’s why they deserve this year’s award.
The Philip B. Onderdonk Jr. award, named after the award’s first recipient and long-time National Judge Advocate of The American Legion, is given to a hero and protector of religious liberty. Instead of a trophy, the recipient receives a Henry Repeating Arms Military Service Tribute Edition .22 caliber commemorative rifle, specially engraved for the award. The rifle is donated by Henry Repeating Arms, a strong supporter of our nation’s military service members and veterans.
Our American Legion victory at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2019 was a tremendous win for religious liberty in this country. It is only fitting that the 2019 Onderdonk Award went to our co-lead counsel for this great victory, Chris DiPompeo. Freedom-loving people everywhere, and especially our military veterans, owe Chris a great debt for his unwavering dedication to the case and the unyielding excellence of his work.
President Trump was honored for passing an executive order advancing religious freedom throughout our federal agencies and government, including the military. As a result, the U.S. Attorney General has now produced guidelines for religious freedom, and the Department of Justice has created a religious liberty task force to make sure that these guidelines and this order are implemented.
Senator Cruz was honored for his donated time while in private practice, partnering with First Liberty and The American Legion on religious liberty issues of critical importance. His efforts played a leading role in helping save the Mojave Desert Veterans Memorial and restoring Memorial Day prayer.
Dan Wheeler is The American Legion’s National Adjutant, Vietnam War veteran of the U.S. Navy, and a journalist. He played a key role in creating The Legion’s partnership with First Liberty, particularly in our legal efforts to stop attacks on memorials and displays honoring veterans.
Philip B. Onderdonk is the National Judge Advocate of The American Legion, a position which he was appointed to in 1983. He worked alongside First Liberty on protecting the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial, and the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.
On June 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its landmark decision to preserve the nearly 100-year old Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial, along with memorials like it bearing religious symbols across the country. The 7-2 decision in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association reaffirms that the First Amendment allows people to use religious symbols and images in public. “This is a landmark victory for religious freedom. The days of illegitimately weaponizing the Establishment Clause and attacking religious symbols in public are over,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel to First Liberty. First Liberty partnered with the prestigious law firm, Jones Day, to defend the memorial, which has stood since 1925 and honors the “49 Boys of Bladensburg” who died during the “great war to end all wars.” The American Legion’s seal is prominently displayed in the center of the Peace Cross, which proudly stands just outside Washington, D.C.
For decades, proud veterans and their families have displayed “Remembrance Tables” at various veteran’s facilities to honor prisoners of war and those missing in action.First Liberty Institute is fighting to stop a group of deceptively named activists called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation who have filed a lawsuit demanding that a veteran’s Bible be removed from a POW/MIA Remembrance Table in Manchester, N.H. In front of a packed house at the 100th American Legion Convention, Vice President Mike Pence threw down the gauntlet declaring that “The Bible Stays”.
In 2001, the ACLU filed a lawsuit on behalf of a man living in Oregon, arguing that the cross was unconstitutional since it was located on government land. To help save the memorial, First Liberty Institute stepped in and filed an amicus (friend of the court) brief at the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of the VFW, The American Legion, Military Order of the Purple Heart and American Ex-Prisoners of War. In its decision to reverse the lower courts’ rulings, the Supreme Court referenced First Liberty’s amicus brief 12 separate times.
Erected in 1954, the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial symbolizes the selfless sacrifice and service of America’s military. With the support of The American Legion, Attorneys General of 19 states, Ronald Reagan’s United States Attorney General Edwin Meese, and veterans who are honored by some of the more than 3,500 plaques of the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, First Liberty fought to save this memorial.
In 2016, our National Motto, “In God We Trust,” survived another attempt to ban it from its traditional use by the government. After a group of atheists, humanists and others filed a lawsuit against the federal government demanding the removal of the phrase “In God We Trust” from U.S. currency, First Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of The American Legion, the largest veterans service organization in America with over 2 million members.
In the brief, First Liberty attorneys stated:
“The American Legion believes that our National Motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ itself originating in Francis Scott Key’s poem that would become the “Star Spangled Banner’ and honoring the courage and valor of our service members who defended Fort McHenry during the War of 1812, is a fitting and solemnizing motto for this nation.
The American Legion, has, therefore….regularly advocated for the recognition and honor of our National Motto, as well as its history and heritage.”
Kelly Shackelford, President and CEO of First Liberty stated, “We’re grateful that the court upheld the federal government’s ability to display our National Motto on our currency. ‘In God We Trust’ is deeply embedded in our nation’s history.”