An up-and-coming Religious Right legal group has a new name and a new look. The Texas-based Liberty Institute has rebranded itself First Liberty, and it has inaugurated its fresh look with a newly-released report that purportedly proves the existence of a wave of hostility toward American Christians.
“Hostility to religion in America is rising like floodwaters, as proven by the increased numbers of cases and attacks documented in this report,” First Liberty’s president, Kelly Shackleford declares in the introduction to Undeniable.But the report does not contain any information that actually proves Shackleford’s persecution claims. In fact, most of the cases it cites are years old; some date back to the late 1980s. That’s a bit misleading, considering that Shackleford claims that the persecution of Christians is markedly on the rise.
The persecution narrative First Liberty presents as fact is in reality a neat bit of propaganda. It starts by listing what it characterizes as “Attacks on Companies and Ministries that Oppose Providing Insurance Coverage for Abortion-Inducing Drugs.” Hobby Lobby v. Burwell is the first entry under that heading, because of course it is. It is unclear why this case is included in a report on hostility toward Christians, because Hobby Lobby, to the detriment of its female employees, won that case.
First Liberty also includes Little Sisters v. Burwell in that category, which is surpassingly strange. The Obama administration does not expect the Little Sisters of the Poor to “provide” insurance coverage for contraception to employees. The nuns have already been granted an exemption to this facet of the Affordable Care Act. Their legal argument rests entirely on the specious claim that they are still somehow complicit if an independent third-party insurer offers that coverage to the employees who work in the nuns’ chain of nursing homes, even though the cost to the Little Sisters would be zero.
Then there’s the saga of Coach Joseph Kennedy. Kennedy, who coaches football at Bremerton High School in Bremerton, Wash., is currently on administrative leave for refusing to end public prayers with football players directly after games. He sued the school district with the assistance of First Liberty, and in its report, the group claims the coach simply “prayed by himself” after games. That’s a lie; there are photos of Kennedy praying with players freely available on the Internet.
The report also broaches one of the Religious Right’s most beloved topics: Religious freedom in the military. First Liberty currently represents Monifa Sterling, an ex-Marine who claims she was court-martialed for displaying Bible verses in her work-station. This, too, is not quite accurate, as Chris Rodda reported in a piece for The Huffington Post last month.Military courts convicted her for failing to report to her place of duty, disrespecting a commissioned officer and failing to wear her proper uniform in addition to the disputed Bible verses. And as AU attorneys noted in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the verdict, Sterling only raised a religious freedom defense after she appealed her conviction.
First Liberty, however, spun her case as a martyrdom narrative and it has applied this spin to other military religious freedom cases, including the debunked tales of Navy Chaplain Wes Modder and Air Force Master Sgt. Phillip Monk. According to First Liberty, Modder was disciplined for simply sharing his religious views during counseling sessions, and Monk for sharing his religious opposition to marriage equality with a lesbian commanding officer.
That’s not what actually happened. The Air Force ruled Monk’s discrimination claim “unsubstantiated” and his commanding officer told Slate this week the two never even discussed marriage equality. Modder, meanwhile, had been accused of telling sailors that “the penis was meant for the vagina and not for the anus” and suggesting that he could “save” LGBT people. The Navy eventually decided to allow him to retire.
Throughout the report, Christians – and occasionally Muslims and Sikhs – are cast as victims, and atheists and secular organizations are typically cast as villains.In First Liberty’s world, atheists apparently do not merit First Amendment protections, and the First Amendment itself does not guarantee religious neutrality by government actors but is instead a license for fundamentalist Christians to proselytize at will.
It even singles out Protect Thy Neighbor, Americans United’s anti-discrimination project, for special condemnation. The group claims we’ve targeted “religious minorities.” This is very strange, since we frequently represent religious minorities and most of our cases address discriminatory acts committed by Christians – who are still the country’s dominant religious demographic.
Undeniable is hardly a 21st Century version of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Instead, it’s a troubling glimpse into the Religious Right’s spin factory.