First Liberty Institute
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|Purpose||litigation in cases where it believes there is a religious freedom issue|
|Headquarters||2001 West Plano Parkway, Suite 1600|
Plano, Texas 75075
First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal organization based in Plano, Texas, near the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Supporters describe the organization as focused on religious freedom and the First Amendment and on providing assistance to individuals and organizations "in legal battles over religious freedom and first-amendment issues". Critics generally describe it as a Christian-right and/or Religious-right advocacy organization with a strong anti-LGBT agenda. Because First Liberty handles court litigation and other similar legal matters, it is often referred to as a law firm.
First Liberty Institute is headed by Kelly Shackelford who founded the organization in 1997 under the name Liberty Legal Institute. The organization changed its name to Liberty Institute in 2009 and then, in 2016, to First Liberty Institute.
First Liberty Institute represented Dr. Eric Walsh in a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Health (DPH) which had hired Dr. Walsh in 2014 as a district health director. Dr. Walsh, however, was also a lay minister at a Seventh-Day Adventist church, where he frequently gave sermons and religious speeches, and one week after his hiring, DPH officials reviewed Dr. Walsh's sermons and subsequently fired Dr. Walsh from his position. In April 2016, First Liberty filed a lawsuit claiming that Dr. Walsh had been terminated from his job due to his religious beliefs.
Among First Liberty Institute's most prominent cases are the "Candy Cane Case"; legal actions taken to stop a report on an investigation into Sarah Palin being published; and numerous legal cases filed in Texas courts concerning First Amendment and religious freedom issues.
First Liberty Institute is also known to litigate veterans memorial cross cases. Among these cases is the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial case, which has been litigation since 2014, after the American Humanist Association sued to remove the memorial claiming it was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. In February 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on this case. In previous years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and the American Humanist Association have challenged other similar veterans memorial cross cases.
The "Candy Cane Case" began in 2004 after a student in Plano, Texas was prohibited by school officials from distributing candy canes with a religious story attached at his school's Christmas party. In 2011, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit granted two school principals immunity in the case against the Plano Independent School District. The Liberty Institute appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case in 2012, upholding the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
In 2011 it filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs alleging that the department had censored prayers and the use of the words "God" or "Jesus". The Department's response was that its regulations stated that there is no censorship but that the religious preferences of the families of the deceased are respected and that at times families have complained about volunteers and the Veterans of Foreign Wars had included religious references in services even though the families had requested that there be none. The Department's response said, "Defendants believe that it should be the family's choice and decision what to have read in accordance with their faith tradition, if any, because it would be improper for others to impose their own religious preferences on a Veteran’s family, especially during this meaningful event." The case was settled in September 2012 after mediation by former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips.
First Liberty Institute represents high school football coach Joseph A. Kennedy in a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District in the state of Washington. The dispute centers around the dismissal of the coach after a school policy conflict pertaining to his practice of a prayer after each game. The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in January 2019.
In November 2016, Ken Klukowski, First Liberty's senior counsel and director of strategic affairs was appointed to head the issue area of "Protecting Americans' Constitutional Rights" in the Donald Trump presidential transition team.
Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, who served as Deputy General Counsel to First Liberty Institute, and Jeff Mateer, who previously served as general counsel, were nominated in 2017 by President Trump for District Court positions. Mateer subsequently withdrew after a May 2015 speech where he referred to transgender children as "Satan’s plan" became public. The Senate confirmed Kacsmaryk on June 19, 2019.
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