Friday, October 31, 2014

4 Church Rights Your Pastor Needs to Know

The recent subpoena of pastor's sermons by Houston Mayor Annise Parker has had many pastors, churches, and religious liberty advocates concerned about the city’s blatant disregard for the Constitution—and with good reason. The bedrock of our country lies upon the freedom of religious expression; a freedom that has been upheld by the Constitution and case law for the past 230 years.

Pastors, churches, and persons of faith have rights, and those rights are not muzzled when one steps up to the pulpit, any more than when one steps into the voting booth.  Yet, those who oppose religious freedom in this country have created a culture of fear in an attempt to stifle expressions of faith.  In response, the attorneys at Liberty Institute remind pastors and other church leaders of four critical rights:


Pastors have a right to preach.  Not only do they have a right to, but many say that they feel a call to.  Yet, when it comes to issues of political or social concern, many pastors are reluctant to speak to their congregations, for fear of legal retaliation.  Scripture calls pastors to “equip the saints” in all areas of society.  This call does not stop in the political arena or the public square.  As political adversity toward religion increases—and elections become vital to the basic religious freedom to carry on various types of ministry—it is crucial for pastors to know that they have the right to address issues of public concern from the pulpit.

Many pastors have been given false information about what they can and cannot say to their congregations. The truth of the matter is that the law has been highly supportive of churches’ rights to steward their congregations in their civic duties. Even as a nonprofit, there is very little a church may not do. (To see more on this, please download our FREE guide to pastors' and churches' legal rights—“Church & Government: Know Your Legal Rights”—available in English or in Spanish.) This is an especially important truth in light of the fact that only one out of every four Christians in America is voting.


Churches have a right to serve.  The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) states that a governmental entity “may not substantially burden a person’s free  exercise of religion [unless it] demonstrates that the application of the burden to the person . . . is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and . . . is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”  In other words, the government has an extraordinarily high burden to meet in order to interfere with a church’s service to a community, and may only do say if there is no “less restrictive” alternative.

Liberty Institute has defended this principle on many occasions.  For example, Isaiah 61 Ministries is a religious ministry whose mission for the past six years has been serving the homeless and elderly of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  In 2013, the city of Harrisburg prohibited Isaiah 61 Ministries from providing meals, clothing, and assistance on public property due to city ordinances, and threatened to arrest ministry workers and volunteers if they continued to serve.  Liberty Institute stepped in, and demanded the city discontinue its unconstitutional policy.  iberty Institute prevailed, and Isaiah 61 was able to continue serving in time for the Christmas season.


Churches have a right to meet and gather.  Churches have First Amendment and rights guaranteed by federal law to gather and worship free from governmental interference.  These rights are enumerated in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which states that “No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that:

  • Imposes substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person,
  • Treats a religious assembly or institution on less than equal terms with a nonreligious assembly or institution,
  • Discriminates against any assembly or institution on the basis of religion or religious denomination,
  • Totally excludes religious assemblies from a jurisdiction,
  • Or unreasonably limits religious assemblies, institutions, or structures within a jurisdiction.

Recently, Liberty Institute represented a church on these very grounds.  Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs, MS sought to rent larger space downtown due to their growing size.  However, a city zoning restriction required 60 percent of local property owners to approve of building a new church, even though no other type of business or organization is subject to this requirement.  Liberty Institute filed a lawsuit on behalf of the church and its pastor, Telsa DeBerry, arguing that burdening a church simply because it’s a church is unfair, discriminatory, illegal, and unconstitutional.  The case advanced all the way to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where Liberty Institute gained a precedent-setting victory.  After which, we were able to reach a settlement with city officials, and allow Opulent Life to permanently relocate to downtown Holly Springs.


Churches have a right to religious autonomy.  Churches are legally protected in establishing and implementing their own systems of governance including areas of:

  • Church Membership
  • Discipline
  • Structure
  • Property

The First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses erect broad constitutional protection for churches to control their internal proceedings.  This protection is now protected even more clearly, thanks to the recent landmark Supreme Court case of EEOC v. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church in which Liberty Institute filed a friend-of-the-court (amicus) brief on behalf of a large number of religious schools from across the nation.  In this decision, the Court ruled that churches and religious organizations have “Ministerial Exception”—the freedom to hire and fire leaders and ministers on the basis of their doctrine and statements of faith, without fear of retaliation of government bodies like the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).


Share this list of rights with your churches and pastors, and encourage them to seek legal consultation and contact Liberty Institute if they believe these special protections have been violated.  Though opposition scare tactics would have us believe otherwise, our churches and pastors are constitutionally protected.

That is, for now.  There is no question that our religious liberties in this country are under attack. Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the country devoted solely to the protection of these liberties.  We work hard to ensure that our pastors, churches, and all persons of faith are protected from discrimination, but we can’t do it alone.

We depend on the generous contributions of supporters like you to ensure that religious liberty in America remains a reality.  Please consider a gift today, and help stand in defense of America’s First Freedom.

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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

Thou Shalt Not Run Over nor Break the Ten Commandments

Liberty Institute condemns a driver's violent act that desecrated the disputed monument on Oklahoma capitol grounds . . .

Photo courtesy of Oklahoma Office of Management and Enterprise Services

All at once, the Ten Commandments were broken last week when an assailant drove through and smashed to pieces a monument displaying these historic principles on the Oklahoma capitol grounds. Liberty Institute—who along with Oklahoma’s Attorney General represents the State of Oklahoma in two different cases to defend this Ten Commandments monument—condemned the violence.  

Only five weeks after we celebrated a victory in the state court case against the ACLU to declare the display constitutional, according to local news reports, a driver identified as 29-year-old Michael Tate Reed allegedly drove into the monument, causing it to break apart, then made vague threats at the site of the April 19, 1995 terrorist bomb attack on the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City, which killed 168 people and injured nearly 700 others.

Reed also allegedly admitted to urinating on the Ten Commandments monument before running it over, and made additional threats.  After being taken into custody, the suspect—who also indicated that Satan told him to attack the display—was taken to a mental facility for an emergency order of detention and a mental evaluation.


While not authorized to communicate on behalf of the State of Oklahoma, Liberty Institute’s Director of Litigation, Hiram Sasser, did speak out on behalf of Liberty Institute and stated:

“We are shocked and saddened that someone would engage in such a hostile and violent act against a passive monument.  We are hopeful the ACLU and the American Atheists who have brought two separate lawsuits against the Ten Commandments monument will publicly condemn this senseless act of violence against a passive monument.”

Oklahoma State Governor Mary Fallin expressed her shock on her Twitter feed on October 24 and said:  “It is appalling that this monument was attacked.  Those who committed this crime will be caught & held responsible.”  The governor also announced her efforts to help restore the monument in a separate tweet that read:  “I have volunteered to help lead private fundraising efforts to restore the Ten Commandments Monument at the State Capitol.”

Country singer Brad Paisley also brought attention to the attack and called out its senselessness in his tweet of support:  “Number 11: thou shalt not drive a car into a granite sculpture of the previous ten.”


The ACLU filed a state court lawsuit in August 2013 to see the removal of the Ten Commandments monument from the Oklahoma state capitol grounds.  The Oklahoma Legislature and Governor previously enacted legislation authorizing Liberty Institute to represent the State of Oklahoma alongside the Oklahoma Attorney General to defend the State in this type of case involving a Ten Commandments monument.

After considerable legal action, in June 2014 a Liberty Institute attorney appeared alongside attorneys from the office of the Oklahoma Attorney General before an Oklahoma state court in support of a motion for summary judgment in favor of the Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol.

After a judge ruled the monument to be constitutional in September 2014, the ACLU appealed the case, and Liberty Institute is ready to continue its defense.  Additionally, American Atheists filed a lawsuit in federal court (the ACLU lawsuit was in state court).  Liberty Institute is also serving as counsel for Oklahoma alongside the Oklahoma Attorney General in the federal lawsuit.

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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

Friday, October 24, 2014

LAWSUIT: Insight for Living Ministries Seeks Relief from Federal Government's Abortion Pill Mandate

If Pastor Charles R. Swindoll's international Bible-teaching ministry does not comply, it faces fines of $100 per day, PER EMPLOYEE . . .

This week, Liberty Institute filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Insight for Living Ministries—the Bible-teaching ministry of well-known ministry leader, Pastor Charles R. Swindoll, founder and senior pastor-teacher of Stonebriar Community Church in Frisco, Texas—seeking judicial relief from the Federal Government’s Abortion Pill Mandate.

The Federal Government’s Abortion Pill Mandate requires that even Christian ministries like Insight for Living Ministries must facilitate, participate, and assist in actions resulting in the provision of potentially life-threatening drugs and devices, which could harm or kill a fertilized egg.

"Our government should never force any religious ministry to violate the very faith that motivates their ministry," said Jeff Mateer, Liberty Institute's General Counsel.  “Americans oppose laws and regulations that force people of faith to abandon the beliefs that motivate their service to God.  And Insight for Living Ministries was founded to preserve and defend the unborn under the belief that life begins at conception in the womb.”

Liberty Institute President & CEO Kelly Shackelford added:  “The government has no right to force Christian ministries to violate their faith.  This mandate is unconstitutional.”


Because Insight for Living Ministries’ sincerely held religious beliefs prohibit it from following the mandate, the Christian non-profit faces and is subject to a $100 per day per employee fine and/or the loss of its insurance coverage.  Insight for Living Ministries has dozens of employees, and this fine would cause a severe economic consequence for this vibrant, international outreach.

Insight for Living Ministries is seeking a preliminary injunction so that it does not have to face significant harms of fines and/or the loss of its insurance coverage, while the case makes its way through the court system.

“The Obama Administration thinks the ‘religious accommodation’ solves any conscience problems,” said Matthew Kacsmaryk, Liberty Institute’s Deputy General Counsel.  “But it still requires Pastor Swindoll and Insight for Living Ministries to formally and materially cooperate in the provision of abortion-inducing drugs or services.  It is our hope that the District Court will follow the Supreme Court’s example in Hobby Lobby and grant an injunction for Insight for Living Ministries.

“Our nation was founded by religious dissenters who fled statist persecution and ratified a First Amendment that guarantees the Free Exercise of religion for all, giving rise to the proud American tradition of conscientious objection,” Kacsmaryk continued.  “Given that there are several less restrictive means available to the federal government—for example, the absolute exemption afforded churches, voucher programs, or direct subsidies to the end user—it is appalling that the Obama Administration requires Pastor Swindoll and Insight for Living Ministries to press the red button that ultimately dispenses abortion-inducing drugs.”


Without the financial and prayer support of concerned Americans like you, Liberty Institute would not be able to represent Insight for Living Ministries and other Christian non-profits, schools, and organizations that are challenging the federal Abortion Pill Mandate.

But because of our unique strategy model—including America’s best attorneys who take religious liberty cases pro bono (free of charge)—we are confident we will prevail.

So with your generous donation, please help support this effort today!  And thank you for joining with us as we work to defend religious rights and work to preserve religious liberty across America.

About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

Big Brother Is Watching and He Wants Your Pastor's Sermons!

Liberty Institute joins Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and other religious liberty defenders in condemning the Houston Pastors' sermon subpoenas . . .

Last week, Liberty Institute President & CEO Kelly Shackelford joined Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at a press conference where he was asked to speak out in support of the First Amendment rights of five pastors in Houston, Texas—who were targeted by Mayor Annise Parker when the City issued subpoenas for their sermons and other church communications. 

The full house met Shackelford with a standing ovation, and cheered triumphantly when he asserted that “the city should withdraw their demands immediately, not just ‘narrowing the scope.’  They should withdraw their demands immediately.  And any public official who does not act immediately to do so should resign and is not fit to serve in any office in the state of Texas.”


The root of this unlawful subpoena is a new Equal Rights Ordinance in the city of Houston, colloquially known as “The Bathroom Bill.”  Among various amendments to Houston law—including many infringing on religious liberty—is a portion of the ordinance that has caused special concern for many families in Houston:  a section that allows members of the opposite sex into each other’s restrooms.  In response to this declaration, opponents of the bill signed a petition to place the bill on a referendum ballot—over 50,000 opponents.  Though far more than the requisite 17,269 signatures, the city of Houston rejected the certification, even though the City Secretary had certified the petition. 

Then, to fan the fire, although they are not parties to the litigation, a subpoena was issued demanding that five church pastors who spoke out in opposition to the ordinance hand over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity, or the city’s mayor, Annise Parker.  You read that right—American pastors were demanded by the government to hand over the sermons they preached from the pulpit or be held in contempt of court.


The Houston Pastors were immediately backed by a flurry of defense, including Senator Ted Cruz and Liberty Institute.  Liberty Institute has been at the forefront of speaking out in the pastors’ defense.  Just since last Thursday’s press conference:
  • Liberty Institute General Counsel Jeff Mateer spoke out about the rights of the Houston Pastors on Chosen Generation radio show, and has conducted telephone conferences updating pastors in Texas and throughout America on the situation in Houston.
  • Liberty Institute President & CEO Kelly Shackelford defended the Houston Pastors and their constitutional rights on WTIC News, as well as in coverage in World Magazine, The Blaze and
  • Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Jeremy Dys wrote a compelling piece for Canon & Culture explaining the similarities between the situation in Houston and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Hobby Lobby case.

Even in the face of massive protest toward the illegality of her actions, Mayor Parker has insisted that the subpoena is legal, and that the pastors’ sermons weren’t what her administration was after:  it was their speeches.  But aren’t sermons still speeches?  And isn’t the mayor’s “amended” demand still blatantly unconstitutional?
The answer to both is “yes.”

“This is a wake up call,” Mateer said in his Chosen Generation interview.  “Just taking out ‘sermons’ is not enough.  This is a chilling effect.  It’s disgraceful, it’s immoral, and it violates the First Amendment.”

Of Houston’s mayor, Shackelford also shared at the Houston press conference:  “The Mayor should be ashamed.  And we should all be proud to stand up and defend the pastors who are resisting these blatant attempts to suppress their First Amendment rights.”

And, Dys said of the subpoenas:  “This is not the request made by one who seeks to understand the faith that has ‘once, for all, been delivered to the saints;’ it is a legal tactic designed to hoist the sermonizers of Houston on the pike for all the nation to see.”


Liberty Institute continues to support the Houston Pastors and their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and speech.  These brave men have taken a stand for religious liberty, the freedom of the pulpit, and the autonomy of the Church from intimidation by the State.  But, the fight will not end here.  Read and share Liberty Institute’s FREE, downloadable fact sheet, “Church & Government: Know Your Legal Rights,” and help spread the truth about pastors’ rights to free speech.

Liberty Institute will continue to defend religious liberty violations in America wherever they occur, and as the nation’s largest law firm committed solely to the defense of religious liberty, we are confident in our ability to defend you, your rights, and the United States Constitution.

But we cannot do it alone.  We depend on contributions from patriots like you—men and women who are determined to protect the values that this nation was founded upon.  That’s why we at Liberty Institute have over a 90% win rate—because we have the support and prayers of countless fellow soldiers in our fight for faith.  Please, help Liberty Institute to continue to defend Americans like the Houston Pastors, and consider a gift today.

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About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit

6 Steps to a Big Win for Religious Liberty in Our Schools

How having the right playbook can secure a victory . . .

In fall of 2013 and again this past August,Ward Melville High School officials in East Setauket, NY, rejected student John Raney’s application to start a Christian club.  John Raney was simply a student with a desire to serve his community as an outpouring of his Christian faith.  Seeking to organize his efforts, he submitted an application to form Students United in Faith, a club dedicated to encouraging fellow students and making a difference in their community through food and resource distribution for the underprivileged.

But each time his school said, “no,” he wasn’t satisfied—and each time Liberty Institute stepped in to confront the school.  Each year, under legal pressure from Liberty Institute, Ward Melville High School accepted John’s request, and the faith-based student club continues to serve his school and the community today.

But what does it take to win those victories, especially in cases involving students and school officials?  If you’ve ever wondered what it takes to win a case for people of faith like John Raney—and the members of Students United in Faith—here’s what you need to know:


Having eyes and ears across the country gives us a fighting chance.  Without Catholics for Freedom of Religion, a Long Island organization dedicated to educating people of their religious rights, we may have never represented John Raney.  When the group members heard of this then 16-year-old whose club had been denied acceptance at Ward Melville High School, they connected John with us and we were quickly on the case to help restore students’ religious liberty rights in this school.


John Raney has grit.  Giving into an oppressive bully would have been understandable considering his young age, but he chose to meet his opposition head on—twice.  Part of what contributes to our success is the determination and courage of people who know their rights and fight for them, even when they’re in the minority.  As long as people of faith continue standing up to those seeking to topple the First Amendment, religious freedom will be secured now and for future generations.


Like seeks after like.  It’s a social principle that is proved in our network of premier volunteer attorneys.  Yes, Liberty Institute features some of the most gifted constitutional attorneys in the country, but it’s how we position and mobilize our network that truly makes us consistently effective.  That is, the best volunteer attorneys want to work with us because of our standard of excellence, commitment to the First Amendment and desire for justice.

Liberty Institute’s expert staff attorneys, Hiram Sasser and Jeremy Dys, worked with our volunteer attorney Todd Harrison—a partner at McDermott Will & Emery—to represent John Raney in his case against Ward Melville High School.  Without this strategic partnership between constitutional and litigation experts, this would not have been possible.


Our supporters ensure people like John Raney continue receiving the FREE representation they need.  Liberty Institute, as a pro bono non-profit law firm, depends on the generosity of like-minded friends, and we are deeply thankful for each one of them.


We safeguard religious freedom in America.  It’s that simple.  And without a clear vision, even our best efforts will be inconsequential, or worse, ignoble.  Knowing this, we are devoted to our vision to see people of faith living without the fear of religious repression.


Religious expression isn’t a proposition up for discussion—it’s God given.  True, the citizenry of many countries do not enjoy many of the freedoms Americans have, and we are thankful to the Lord for blessing us with the privilege of serving others through him.  Without God’s grace, what we do wouldn’t be possible.  It’s God who enables us to protect the freedoms He has given us, but it’s the same God who expects us to serve and worship Him even when our faith and freedoms are being challenged.  Because of His grace, we work to ensure freedom of religious conviction and expression without fear of reprisal.


It’s worth mentioning that before the above six steps came the essential “first step”:  the Constitution of the United States and the laws, and court precedents that flow from it.  Even in an America where many aspects of the law have been misinterpreted and twisted against freedom, the fact is that the law is predominantly on the side of religious liberty—especially in cases like Students United in Faith.

Liberty Institute staff and volunteer attorneys who know how to use that law like a world-class surgeon knows how to use this instrument to achieve life-changing outcomes.  John Raney’s case has provided a textbook example of how to stand up to unlawful oppression and—with the help of the law, good lawyers, ardent supporters, and the grace of God—come out victorious.

About Liberty Institute
Liberty Institute is a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending and restoring religious liberty across America — in our schools, for our churches, in the military and throughout the public arena. Liberty’s vision is to reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders. For information, visit