Kelly Shackleford, President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans, discusses the crisis of religious liberty in America today, demonstrated by a new report documenting the rise in the number and severity of attacks on religion across our nation.
INTRODUCTION: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We will be talking about the crisis of religious liberty in America today.
Our guest is Kelly Shackleford, President and CEO of First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans. Kelly is a constitutional scholar who has argued before the United States Supreme Court, and has won a number of landmark First Amendment and religious liberty cases.
Kelly Shackleford, welcome to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: It’s great to be on! Happy to do it.
JOHN RUSTIN: Tell us about First Liberty’s annual report, “Undeniable.” What is the scope of this report and when and why did you decide to initiate this project?
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: What happened was back, I think it was 2004 if I’m not mistaken, there was a hearing in the United States Senate on religious hostilities in the United States, to see what kind of things were going on. And a number of people testified to their very specific cases/situations and a number of those were our clients. Afterwards, all the nay-sayers could say was, “Well, these are just isolated incidents.” And so, we got a letter from Senator Kennedy and Senator Cornyn saying, “Is this true?” We said, “We’ll just collect what we can find out there that is documented and we’ll just send it back.” As somebody who does this full-time, we were even shocked by how pervasive it is. Because, what you forget is, you’ll hear about one of these a day, two of these a day, and when you start adding those up, it’s a lot. And you realize, it’s so pervasive that there’s no way you can avoid it. Now this was back then. So we decided about five years ago or so, that we were just going to start re-doing this every year. And one of the things people need to be aware of, and your listeners need to be aware of, is just the past five years alone, there has been an increase in these attacks on religious freedom in the United States by 133 percent. So it shows you how quickly and how really these things are exacerbating. It’s not our opinion; you can look at it. That’s the great thing: All these are documented; There are citations to each one; And it’s something that anybody can look at and use to help people understand what really is going on around the country, because I think it is important that people know.
JOHN RUSTIN: Now I know Kelly, that you have characterized the findings in this year’s “Undeniable” report as “unprecedented,” explain why.
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: Well, we’ve never seen this: over 1400! These are documented attacks on religious liberty. Again, this is not overseas. We’re not talking about situations overseas; we’re talking about in the United States. It’s also unprecedented because in the groups, which actually do surveys of the world and religious liberty attacks and they’re very clear. They’re not just talking about people being killed; they’re talking about other types of attacks on religious freedom. America made their list for the first time, so that tells you something about the fact that something is going on. There really is a battle going on. This is not somewhere else; this is in the United States. We could just go through story after story after story and we don’t have to go beyond North Carolina. We’ve got huge cases in North Carolina that we’re working on. This is everywhere. And I think, the type of people who listen to the station this is on, the kind of people who follow your organization, if they knew and if they were all collected together in having this knowledge, I think we would put an end to this. But I think the problem is, most people just don’t know it is happening and they’re getting it piecemeal. Providing this together is, I think, much more powerful and gives them a resource that they can use to stand for religious freedom.
JOHN RUSTIN: Kelly, you mentioned that, in 2017 for the first time in history, International Christian Concern, which monitors the persecution of Christians worldwide, included the United States in its “Hall of Shame.” Our listeners may be wondering: Does the United States really deserve to be on a list that includes notorious anti-Christian nations like Pakistan, China, and India?
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: These groups don’t just sort of willy-nilly pick countries. They have very exacting criteria that are in place for how they pick countries and put them on the list. They were very clear in saying, “United States is not a country that’s murdering Christians and doing all this.” There are different places on the list, obviously, but the fact that we now are on the list…. And that’s where it starts. They start with taking away your freedoms, with punishing people who express those freedoms—They start with those. Probably one of the best things that comes to mind, I’m thinking of Cardinal George, the famous quote, he said, “I will die peacefully in my sleep; my predecessor will die on the streets of the United States; and his predecessor will die in prison in the United States.” —His view absent of redemption and turn and change. We’re heading in the wrong direction here and some people might think, you’re going too far. I really do believe that in the next five to ten years, we’re going to determine as a country whether we’re going to preserve religious freedom or it’s going to be gone. And the reason I would say that is, to people who are skeptical is: Think of one state anywhere in the United States where you can pass a religious freedom law right now. It is hugely controversial; it’s almost impossible to do. We’re really in a battle for that and this is what our country was founded upon. This kind of information, I think, is valuable and it’s a wake up call to all of us to stand for our religious freedom, not only for ourselves, but for our kids and our grand kids.
JOHN RUSTIN: Kelly, to what do you attribute the animus we are seeing toward people of faith and the outward expression of faith in American society today?
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: I think that’s usually two-fold, and it can be one of the two or both. There’s a hostility to religious freedom that is out there. There are groups formed, and their sole purpose—and they’re very well-intentioned, the Freedom from Religion Foundation would be a great example, right,—their goal as an atheist group is to rid the country of religion, because they think the country would be better if it didn’t exist. So, there are groups out there across the country, from the ACLU to Freedom from Religion to on and on that actually express hostility to religion in a number of these situations we’re talking about. Then, there are also people, who— maybe they’re not anti-religious; they just are like, “Hey, we’re the government and you just need to move out of the way.” Think of all the Obamacare cases that are out there: Little Sisters of the Poor, a bunch of nuns, all of a sudden being told that they have to buy abortifacients and contraceptions against their faith. Do I think the government, in those cases, from the Health and Human Services, was just hateful of all religions? No, I just think their approach was, “We’re the government; we’re the answer and you people need to get in line.” So, there’s sort of attacks for different reasons, some of it is hostility; some of it is just the government is in almost every area of life and there are many people that their goal would be to move religion away and religious expression and groups away whenever government is nearby. And that’s really just a way to sort of push religious freedom into a very small corner in our society, and those are the battles that we’re having to fight.
JOHN RUSTIN: Kelly, what good news did you find in the “Undeniable” report? Was there good news?
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: Absolutely! There is good news. The good news is if people are willing to stand up, the odds are huge that they’re going to win. For instance, on our First Liberty cases—and this is 17 years in a row—our win rate has been above 90 percent. And so, why? If people are willing to stand up, you’ll get the best litigators around the country; they’ll donate their time from the biggest law firms in their communities. But the reason we win is not only that we have the best attorneys and all this and they’re local, but because this country was built on religious freedom. The Constitution, the laws, the heritage, the history, everything is there to support religious freedom, if we’re willing to stand for it. Now if we allow all that to be stripped away, then one day, our kids, our grandkids, they won’t have those laws, that history, that heritage because all that stuff will be gone. But that is not where we are now, and that’s why we are winning these cases. I would encourage people, when you see these things, realize you can stop what is being attempted: the law is on the side of religious freedom; it’s the first two clauses of the First Amendment of our Constitution; it’s something that our founders were committed to; and we can win these cases over and over again if people are willing to stand up and stand their ground when those attacks come.
JOHN RUSTIN: In addition to that Kelly, and as Christians living in what some refer to as a post-Christian nation, are there other tangible steps we can take to help turn the tide on this issue and regain some of the ground that seems to have been lost in recent years?
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: Absolutely! Again, that’s what’s been happening in these cases. If you were to go back 30 years ago, you would find that the cases were worse than they are now because there was nobody fighting for these things. We’re finding now, there are numerous precedents that are now in place. Think of the case just won this last year at the Supreme Court, the Trinity Lutheran case. We’re winning a lot of these cases at the Supreme Court, creating precedent and these things are a real positive. As far as the average person that’s out there, they might think, I’m not a lawyer—my lawyer joke, thank goodness—what can I do? I would say one of the things you can do is—the things that I’m gonna tell you you can do is probably going to require you to connect to somebody, and that is, you can pray. Well, how can you pray if you don’t know things are going on, right? You can be the person who takes that email with the information on what people’s rights are and send it to other people. Or, that new case where people are trying to be intimidated and within that it says, here’s the law, and you can share that with maybe ten people and maybe they share that with 100 people, and now a lot of people…. What I find in the faith is, if you try to do something that really has impact, eternal impact, the enemy is going to try to use fear and misinformation to stop you, and so if you’re not willing to walk through that with boldness, you won’t have impact. That’s how, if you’re a listener, you can be the person that allows others to be bold, because you’re providing them with the truthful information about the freedoms they have. And again that requires you to connect. and it doesn’t have to be First Liberty. Maybe there’s another group out there that you’re connected with. But if you’re not, we would love for you to connect with firstliberty.org, get those emails once a week, look at the cases, look at the information at what your rights are as a teacher, as a student, what your rights are in the workplace with regard to your faith, and in the military, you name it, and you can begin to free other people to be bold and open and really make a difference in people’s lives.
JOHN RUSTIN: Great. Well Kelly, that’s a great segway into the last minute that we have on this week’s show, and that is for you to tell our listeners where they can go to learn more about First Liberty, and also to obtain a copy of this report “Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America.”
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: The easiest thing to do again would just be to go and you spell this out— it’s not the number—but firstliberty.org. If you can type this much, firstliberty.org/undeniable will take you directly to the page where we have the information on this book that surveys all these attacks. You can watch a quick Facebook Live on it; you can download the entire book if you’d like to, all 1400 examples; and any other information you need. And you can even order a hard copy from us if you’d like. Firstliberty.org is where I’d go. Click on the “Get Updates” at the top and then, if you want to go further, look specifically for the “Undeniable” at firstliberty.org/undeniable.
JOHN RUSTIN: Undeniable, certainly. Well Kelly Shackleford, I want to thank you for that. I want to encourage our listeners to avail themselves of this great information. Kelly, we’re so grateful for all that you do to stand for our first freedoms, our first liberties, which is the freedom of religion and freedom of speech in our nation. And we just pray for your continued success, for your continued support from folks all across this nation to stand for what is right and true, and we thank you for standing in the gap and being such an effective voice of Truth in our nation.
KELLY SHACKLEFORD: Thank you for getting the word out as well. That’s such a blessing and so important, so God bless you.
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