First Liberty Institute

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First Liberty
TypeNon-profit organization
Purposelitigation in religious freedom disputes
Headquarters2001 West Plano Parkway, Suite 1600
Plano, Texas 75075
President, CEO
Kelly Shackelford
Executive General Counsel
Hiram Sasser
Increase $10,099,518 (2017)
Increase $8,392,977 (2016)[1]

First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit Christian conservative legal organization[2] based in Plano, Texas.[3][4]

Prominent in the legal circles on the Christian right,[5] the organization litigates in First Amendment cases on religion,[6] and is often referred to as a law firm.[7][8] The group has taken stances against LGBT rights.[9][10]

First Liberty Institute is headed by Kelly Shackelford[11] who founded the organization in 1997 under the name Liberty Legal Institute.[12] The organization changed its name to Liberty Institute in 2009 and then, in 2016, to First Liberty Institute.[13]

Prominent cases[edit]

First Liberty Institution is one of several Christian conservative legal organizations in the United States; others include the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and Justice, Thomas More Society, Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, Liberty Counsel, National Legal Foundation, Christian Legal Society, and Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.[2]

First Liberty Institute represented Dr. Eric Walsh in a lawsuit against the Georgia Department of Health (DPH), which hired Walsh in 2014 as a public health director for northwest Georgia, and then fired him one week later after reviewing his Seventh-Day Adventist sermons. Walsh alleged that Georgia DPH had unlawfully discriminated against him based on religion. The state settled the case for $225,000.[14]

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.[15][16]

First Liberty Institute has litigated veterans memorial cross cases. Among these cases was the Bladensburg WWI Veterans Memorial case, which has been in litigation since 2014, after the American Humanist Association sued to remove the memorial claiming it was in violation of the U.S. Constitution.[17][18][19] In June 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in American Legion v. American Humanist Association upholding the cross memorial, citing that it did not violate the Establishment Clause.[20] In previous years, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the ACLU, and the American Humanist Association have challenged other similar veterans memorial cross cases.[21][22]

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.[15] 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.[23] The Liberty Institute appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court,[24] which refused to hear the case in 2012, upholding the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.[25]

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".[26] The case was settled in September 2012 after mediation by former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips.[27]

First Liberty Institute represented high school football coach Joseph A. Kennedy in a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District in the state of Washington.[28] The dispute centers around the dismissal of the coach after a school policy conflict pertaining to his practice of a prayer after each game.[29][30] The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in January 2019.[31][32] In March 2020, a federal district court ruled against Kennedy.[33]

Prominent individuals[edit]

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.[34] Klukowski, later Senior Counsel to Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Clark, was one of several Trump campaign officials subpoenaed in the Jan. 6 Select Committee investigation.[35]

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.[36][37] The Senate confirmed Kacsmaryk on June 19, 2019.[38][39]


  1. ^ "First Liberty Institute - Nonprofit Explorer". 9 May 2013.
  2. ^ a b Henry Farrell, These are the conservative legal groups behind the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, Washington Post (December 5, 2017).
  3. ^ Monson, Rani (May 7, 2017). "Religious leaders in Dallas express mixed feelings about Trump order". Culture Map Dallas. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  4. ^ Jackson, David M. (June 21, 2016). "Trump to evangelicals: Pray for people to vote for me". USA Today. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  5. ^ "Anti-Trans Bathroom Debate: How a Local Religious-Right Faction Launched a National Movement". Rolling Stone. January 22, 2018. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  6. ^ Thomas, Robert Murray (2007). God in the classroom: religion and America's public schools. Praeger. p. 199. ISBN 9780275991418.
  7. ^ Green, Emma (May 4, 2017). "Why Trump's Executive Order on Religious Liberty Left Many Conservatives Dissatisfied". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  8. ^ Green, Emma (December 28, 2016). "The Religious Liberty Showdowns Coming in 2017". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  9. ^ "Paxton Stacks AG's Office With Anti-LGBT Culture Warriors". The Austin Chronicle. April 12, 2016. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  10. ^ "Anti-LGBT roundup 10.13.17". Southern Poverty Law Center. October 13, 2017. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  11. ^ "Two Bears make list of top 25 Texas lawyers of the last 25 years". Baylor University. 31 August 2010. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
  12. ^ Ferguson Jr., John (2009). "Liberty Legal Institute". The First Amendment Encyclopedia. Middle Tennessee State University. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  13. ^ Smith, Morgan (March 10, 2016). "Religious Liberty Champion Joins Paxton's Team". The Texas Tribune. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  14. ^ Bonnie Pritchett (February 10, 2017). "Georgia settles with doctor in religious freedom case". Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  15. ^ a b Haag, Matthew (24 July 2010). "Plano's Liberty Institute expands reach from candy cane pens to Palin, prayer, cross on federal land". Dallas Morning News. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  16. ^ Byrd, Don. "VA Responds to Houston Cemetery Allegations". Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  17. ^ Adam Liptak (November 2, 2018). "Supreme Court to Rule on 40-Foot War Memorial Cross at Center of Church-State Debate". The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  18. ^ Bravin, Jess (November 2, 2018). "Supreme Court to Hear Case on Giant Cross on Public Maryland Land". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  19. ^ Richard Wolf (November 2, 2018). "Supreme Court's latest church-state conundrum: Must a 'peace cross' memorial to World War I vets come down?". USA Today. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  20. ^ Thomsen, Jacqueline (June 20, 2019). "Supreme Court rules cross at state-run WWI memorial can remain". The Hill. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
  21. ^ Robert Barnes (February 27, 2019). "Supreme Court seems to seek narrow way to uphold cross that memorializes war dead". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  22. ^ Adam Liptak (February 27, 2019). "Supreme Court Seems Ready to Allow Cross Honoring War Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  23. ^ Morgan, et al. v. Swanson, et al. (U.S. Court of Appeals for 5th Circuit 27 September 2011) ("the views of the majority of the en banc Court granting qualified immunity to the principals and the judgment reversing the district court.").Text
  24. ^ "'Candy Cane' Case Appealed to US Supreme Court". CBN News. 1 January 2012. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  25. ^ "U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of 'Candy Cane' Case". PR Newswire. 11 June 2012. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  26. ^ Wise, Lindsay (July 18, 2011). "VA denies censorship at Houston National Cemetery". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  27. ^ Wise, Lindsay (Sep 22, 2011). "VA agrees not to censor prayer at Houston cemetery". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
  28. ^ Clarridge, Christine (August 10, 2016). "Praying football coach Joe Kennedy sues Bremerton School District". The Seattle Times. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  29. ^ "School district takes action against praying football coach". CBS News. October 29, 2015. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  30. ^ Dolan, Maura (August 23, 2017). "Football coach's on-field prayer not protected by Constitution, appeals court rules". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  31. ^ Wolf, Richard (January 22, 2019). "Supreme Court refuses to consider appeal from high school football coach fired for praying after games". USA Today. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  32. ^ Gregory, Patrick (April 9, 2019). "Football Coach's On-Field Prayer Won't Get High Court Review". Bloomberg Law. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  33. ^ Clarridge, Christine (March 6, 2020). "Praying coach Joe Kennedy's lawsuit against Bremerton School District thrown out". The Seattle Times. Retrieved April 1, 2020.
  34. ^ Arnsdorf, Isaac (2016-11-11). "More lobbyists on the transition". Politico. Retrieved 2016-11-15.
  35. ^ "Select Committee Subpoenas Former Officials with Close Ties to the Former President". Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol. 2021-11-09. Retrieved 2021-11-09.
  36. ^ "Cornyn has doubts about nominee who said transgender rights were 'Satan's plan'". San Antonio Express-News. September 28, 2017. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  37. ^ "Grassley: Two controversial federal bench nominees won't be confirmed". Washington Post. December 13, 2017. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  38. ^ Moreau, Julie (June 19, 2019). "Trump pick slammed as 'anti-LGBTQ activist' gets lifetime judicial appointment". NBC News. Retrieved June 20, 2019.
  39. ^ Itkowitz, Colby (June 19, 2019). "Senate confirms Trump judicial nominee who called homosexuality 'disordered'". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 20, 2019.

External links[edit]