First Liberty Institute

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First Liberty
First Liberty Institute.jpg
TypeNon-profit organization
Purposelitigation in cases where it believes there is a religious freedom issue
Headquarters2001 West Plano Parkway, Suite 1600
Plano, Texas 75075
Kelly Shackelford
General Counsel
Hiram Sasser

First Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal organization based in Plano, Texas, near the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.[1][2] Supporters describe the organization as focused on religious freedom and the First Amendment[3][4] and on providing assistance to individuals and organizations "in legal battles over religious freedom and first-amendment issues".[5] Critics generally describe it as a Christian-right and/or Religious-right advocacy organization with a strong anti-LGBT agenda.[6][7][8] Because First Liberty handles court litigation and other similar legal matters, it is often referred to as a law firm.[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 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.[14][15] In April 2016, First Liberty filed a lawsuit claiming that Dr. Walsh had been terminated from his job due to his religious beliefs.[16][17]

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.[18][19]

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.[20][21][22] 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.[23][24]

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.[18] 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.[25] The Liberty Institute appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court,[26] which refused to hear the case in 2012, upholding the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.[27]

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."[28] The case was settled in September 2012 after mediation by former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips.[29]

First Liberty Institute represents high school football coach Joseph A. Kennedy in a lawsuit against the Bremerton School District in the state of Washington.[30] The dispute centers around the dismissal of the coach after a school policy conflict pertaining to his practice of a prayer after each game.[31][32] The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in January 2019.[33][34]

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.[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]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rani Monson (May 7, 2017). "Religious leaders in Dallas express mixed feelings about Trump order". Culture Map Dallas. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  2. ^ David M. Jackson (June 21, 2016). "Trump to evangelicals: Pray for people to vote for me". USA Today. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  3. ^ Micah Rate (September 14, 2017). "Report: Major Increase In Attacks on Religious Liberty". Town Hall. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  4. ^ Ian Snively (September 22, 2017). "Documented Cases of Religious Discrimination Jump 15%". The Daily Signal. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  5. ^ Thomas, Robert Murray (2007). God in the classroom: religion and America's public schools. Praeger. p. 199.
  6. ^ "Paxton Stacks AG's Office With Anti-LGBT Culture Warriors". The Austin Chronicle. April 12, 2016. Retrieved February 7, 2018.
  7. ^ "Anti-LGBT roundup 10.13.17", Southern Poverty Law Center, October 13, 2017, retrieved February 7, 2018.
  8. ^ "Anti-Trans Bathroom Debate: How a Local Religious-Right Faction Launched a National Movement", Rolling Stone, January 22, 2018, retrieved February 7, 2018.
  9. ^ Emma Green (May 4, 2017). "Why Trump's Executive Order on Religious Liberty Left Many Conservatives Dissatisfied". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  10. ^ Emma Green (December 28, 2016). "The Religious Liberty Showdowns Coming in 2017". The Atlantic. Retrieved February 6, 2018.
  11. ^ "Two Bears make list of top 25 Texas lawyers of the last 25 years". Baylor University. Retrieved 27 May 2012.
  12. ^ John Ferguson Jr. (2009). "Liberty Legal Institute". The First Amendment Encyclopedia. Middle Tennessee State University. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  13. ^ Morgan Smith (March 10, 2016). "Religious Liberty Champion Joins Paxton's Team". The Texas Tribune. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  14. ^ "Dr Eric Walsh". Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  15. ^ "Fired for preaching: Georgia dumps doctor over church sermons". April 20, 2016. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  16. ^ David French (April 10, 2016). "Georgia Bureaucrats Listened to a Doctor's Sermons, and Then Fired Him". National Review. Retrieved January 24, 2018.
  17. ^ Bonnie Pritchett (February 10, 2017). "Georgia settles with doctor in religious freedom case". Retrieved January 31, 2018.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Byrd, Don. "VA Responds to Houston Cemetery Allegations". Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ 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.
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ Adam Liptak (February 27, 2019). "Supreme Court Seems Ready to Allow Cross Honoring War Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved March 7, 2019.
  25. ^ 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
  26. ^ "'Candy Cane' Case Appealed to US Supreme Court". CBN News. 1 January 2012. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  27. ^ "U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of 'Candy Cane' Case". PR Newswire. 11 June 2012. Retrieved 20 January 2013.
  28. ^ Wise, Lindsay (July 18, 2011). "VA denies censorship at Houston National Cemetery". Houston Chronicle. Retrieved 15 August 2011.
  29. ^ Wise, Lindsay (Sep 22, 2011). "VA agrees not to censor prayer at Houston cemetery". Houston Chronicle. Hearst Communications, Inc. Retrieved January 19, 2013.
  30. ^ Clarridge, Christine (August 10, 2016). "Praying football coach Joe Kennedy sues Bremerton School District". The Seattle Times. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  31. ^ "School district takes action against praying football coach". CBS News. October 29, 2015. Retrieved January 26, 2018.
  32. ^ 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.
  33. ^ 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.
  34. ^ Gregory, Patrick (April 9, 2019). "Football Coach's On-Field Prayer Won't Get High Court Review". Bloomberg Law. Retrieved April 9, 2019.
  35. ^ Arnsdorf, Isaac (2016-11-11). "More lobbyists on the transition". Politico. Retrieved 2016-11-15.
  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]