[WCS Special] Thwarting Attacks on Religious Freedom in America—Kelly Shackelford

By Jan Jekielek
Jan Jekielek
Jan Jekielek
Senior Editor
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show, "American Thought Leaders." Jan’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009 he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He is the producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."
July 18, 2019 Updated: November 9, 2019

At the Western Conservative Summit, we sit down with Kelly Shackelford, the President, CEO, and Chief Counsel of First Liberty Institute.

We discuss the work of the First Liberty Institute to defend religious liberty in the Bladensburg Cross court case, in which the Supreme Court ruled it was okay for the Bladensburg Cross, a major veteran’s memorial, to remain on public property. We also discuss First Liberty Institute’s other work to thwart attacks on religious freedom in the military and in senior living facilities.

Jan Jekielek: Kelly Shackelford, wonderful to have you on American Thought Leaders. So, Kelly, not too long ago, you won a landmark decision in the Supreme Court with religious liberty being at the center of it. Tell us more.

Kelly Shackelford: Well it’s a case that a lot of people in the United States have heard about. It’s kind of one of the more watched cases of the term. It’s the Bladensburg Cross [case]. It’s a veteran’s memorial that was put up almost a hundred years ago by mothers who lost their sons in WWI. It was to remember the 49 young men in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is right outside of DC, who died in WWI. And it was a lone cross . . . if you look at WWI memorials, they tend to be this cross, because it was a brutal war–14 million dead–and the pictures people in the United States were getting was they were dying so fast that they were just slapping crosses and stars of David on people’s [graves], and you could just see row after row after row as far as the eye could see. So that became a symbol that got used all around the world really.

They put that symbol up and they had the people’s names, and it was on private property; the American Legion even helped finish it. What happened is, it was right outside of DC, so they built roads around it. When they did, the government took over the land to control the roads and the safety, but they still didn’t want to harm a memorial.

Go another 30 or 40 years, now the American Humanists go, “Hey, wait; there’s a cross, and it’s on government land,” and so they filed a lawsuit, saying it violated our establishment clause. And we won in the district court; at the court of appeals, shockingly, not only did we not win, one of the judges said, “I think we should just cut the arms off the cross, because that way we won’t have to destroy it, but it won’t offend anybody.” So, [he] had a mindset that was just shocking.

We went to the Supreme Court, and we said, “Look, if you don’t reverse this . . . not only is this horrible for this memorial and all the families involved with their [ancestors] names on the memorial, but Arlington National Cemetery is just two miles away. And there are large, free-standing crosses there, and you’re going to have to go there and tear those down. And, it’s going to start a religious cleansing . . . you’re going to [have to] go into every community of every state in this country, because there are religious symbols in all these communities.”

So, instead of saying, let’s just defend this cross, we felt like these attacks on memorials and religious monuments and things that are part of our history really is not what the founders ever intended. And, it all stems from a case about 50 years ago called the Lemon case.

We [told] the Court, “This needs to stop. You need to reverse Lemon, you need to throw Lemon out, because it’s leading to all these attacks and hostility to religion.”

And, we got a victory upholding the Veteran’s Memorial just three weeks ago. But even more important to us, is Lemon was just savaged. Six different Justices said, “It was horrible. We’re not going to apply it.” And, in my opinion, Lemon is dead.

Which, if that’s true, that is a major shift for our country. The 50 years of hostility to religion–whether it’s a nativity scene or a menorah, or whatever–is over. And we’re going in a whole new direction in the future.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s very powerful, a powerful shift. Of course, it was covered extensively in the media. We covered it here at The Epoch Times. So, how is it that you came upon this case in the first place? Because this isn’t the only case you’ve done; this is what you guys do–cases like this.

Mr. Shackelford: Well it started back many years ago . . . there was a case going to the Supreme Court, it was the Ten Commandments case. Where they were trying to say you’ve got to tear down this Ten Commandments [monument] that’s been up for however many years. And, we thought, okay, we were going to file what’s called an amicus brief. Meaning, we were going to try to influence the case, even though it wasn’t our case, because it affects a lot of our clients.

And, we thought, “Who would be the best client?” And we started thinking, “You know, if they start tearing down the Ten Commandments monuments, there’s a lot of veterans memorials that have religious symbols . . . we called the American Legion, and sat down with them, and said, “I’m sure you’re not thinking about this, but these cases could really affect you.” And, they were like, “Oh my gosh, you’re right.” And, [shortly thereafter], we started seeing attacks against veteran’s memorials.

If you look at that first brief, maybe 10 years ago, that we filed in the Supreme Court, examples of memorials we said that could be in danger–one of them was the Bladensburg Cross.

Mr. Jekielek: You were already looking at it.

Mr. Shackelford: Yeah, that was luck, but we showed them the kind of memorials . . . you’d have to go into the Supreme Court and [take down] Moses there with the Ten Commandments. This country has a religious heritage. There are a lot of religious people. So, when you look at monuments and memorials, you’ll see secular ones and religious ones. And, the idea that we have to go and tear down all the religious ones, is not neutrality–it’s hostility to religion. And, so, we finally, I think, after [the] Bladensburg [case], have turned the corner on stopping the hostility, and I think this is just the beginning. I think this is going to affect more than just monuments and memorials. We’re going to see some really good advances for religious freedom for all Americans.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s incredible. First Liberty Institute, incredible work you guys are doing. FirstLiberty.org, is that right? In case anyone wants to check it out.

Mr. Shackelford: Yes, FirstLiberty.org

Mr. Jekielek: Tell us a little bit more about what you are working on right now, some things that would be of interest to freedom-loving Americans.

Mr. Shackelford: I think that the attacks that we’ve been having to defend in the military, have been something that has disturbed a lot of people. We’ve had a lot of chaplains we’ve had to defend. Chaplains that are being attacked for being chaplains. For using the Bible and answering a question, and things that chaplains are supposed to do.

Fortunately, we’ve been able to win every single one of these cases, but these have been really difficult for the chaplains because if you’re in the military, and they come after you, your career is over. And, it’s a hierarchal structure, and so, everything you’ve done your entire career is about to be gone–your pension, everything, in these cases. In every case, by the time we were done, we won, we won a reversal, they got their pension back, everything. But these attacks against people of faith in the military really should not occur.

If you go back to the history of our military, George Washington, one of the first things he did, [was] give everybody a Bible and establish chaplains. Because he understood how important religious freedom is to most people. There was even a brief filed in one of our cases at the Supreme Court, where the generals filed a brief, saying, “We’ve found the number one reason that people apply for the military is out of their faith.”

Mr. Jekielek: Oh, that’s interesting.

Mr. Shackelford: And, they said, “Not only that, it’s the number one thing that they rely upon, and so it’s crucial that they have religious freedom.” So, these cases have been really important, and we keep having to fight them, because there’s a political correctness or something in the military, that is trying to–and there are outside groups, too, that are attacking, trying to push [out] the religious freedom. These are people who are giving it their all; the idea that we would take away their religious freedom when they’re sacrificing so much, and when that’s what they need, I think it’s a travesty–it would be a travesty. The good news is, we’re winning case after case after case here.

The other area that I would say is really disturbing that we have cases in that’s new, is senior living facilities. So many people end up in these senior living facilities in their latter years, and a lot of these people can’t leave. They’re not in the right health to leave or whatever. And, they’re being told that they can’t have a Bible study. They can’t get together and talk about religion.

Mr. Jekielek: Really?

Mr. Shackelford: Yeah, we’re having case after case after case. We’ve got one where they literally put a sign on the piano in the common room saying (in bold letters), “All Christian Music is Banned.” Now people look at the sign and they say, “Oh, come on, you attorneys did the sign, right?” We’re like “No, we didn’t do the sign. This is what the building did to these seniors.”

One of the cases we’re representing right now is an 80-year-old minister, who is in one of these senior living facilities, and a lot of people there said, “Look, I can’t get out. I’m in a wheelchair. I’m in a situation. Would you be willing to do a Bible study, so that I can have some religious input during the week?” And, he said, “I’d be happy to. We have a common area room; everybody can use it.”

He put in to use it, and they said, “You can use it, but not if you’re going to study the Bible.” And, he was kind of shocked, but he thought, “Well, okay; I’ll just do it in my apartment.” He has now received a letter, telling him he will be evicted if he holds a Bible study in his apartment.

Mr. Jekielek: This isn’t like they’re trying to force people to participate in this. This is just he’s simply doing that.

Mr. Shackelford: They want a religion-free building, but this is where people live. That’s housing discrimination. You can’t come in and tell people where they live, they can’t practice their religion.

Mr. Jekielek: Is it a government building? Is that why they feel they can do this?

Mr. Shackelford: Some of them are government, and again that’s even more of a violation, because it not only violates housing laws that apply to private groups, but it violates the Constitution. Some of them are private, some of them are government.

We had one, we had two 85-year-old women, and their facility, a government facility, and kids were coming through around Christmas. And, they started reading the Charlie Brown Christmas story to the kids, and a government official jumped in when they realized that part of that is, they get to where Linus reads a little bit of scripture, and they shut the thing down, and moved the kids out, and told the ladies never to do that again. This is their home, and they can’t talk about their faith.

These are clear violations of the law, but we’ve got to fight for this. I bet everybody listening to this has somebody they know that’s in one of these facilities. Family member, friend, a lot of us one day might be. We have got to preserve religious freedom in the place where people live. Especially when they can’t even get out.

That’s especially cruel, I think, to tell people they’ll never have any access to religion for the rest of their lives with other people. That’s very cruel, and it’s not the law. And so it’s a really disturbing trend. We’re seeing cases all over the country. But we plan to win those cases and set a precedent where hopefully we can put an end to it.

Mr. Jekielek: And I know that you’re a Christian-based organization, but you’re actually representing anyone who’s seeking their constitutional rights.

Mr. Shackelford: We represent all faiths. We have Jewish synagogues all over the country that are being attacked. It’s really sad, but we’re winning those cases. But we’re having to defend a lot of people. So the way everybody needs to understand it is, whatever your religion, you want religious freedom so you can practice yours, and if you’re not willing to stand for people with different beliefs, then everybody will lose their religious freedom. We represent all faiths, and always have, and always will, because that’s what this country was built upon: religious freedom.

Mr. Jekielek: That’s a great place to end. Thank you so much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

American Thought Leaders is an Epoch Times show available on Facebook and YouTube.

Jan Jekielek
Senior Editor
Jan Jekielek is a senior editor with The Epoch Times and host of the show, "American Thought Leaders." Jan’s career has spanned academia, media, and international human rights work. In 2009 he joined The Epoch Times full time and has served in a variety of roles, including as website chief editor. He is the producer of the award-winning Holocaust documentary film "Finding Manny."