First Liberty: demanding supremacy, not liberty

First Liberty Institute is the Christian Nationalist legal outfit with a deceptive name. The group seeks supremacy for its version of fundamentalist Christianity, not liberty.

To achieve its goals, First Liberty isn’t above peddling misinformation. A federal appeals court accused First Liberty of spinning a “deceitful narrative” in a case from Washington state involving a public high school football coach who demanded the right to pray with students at the 50-yard line after games.

Eroding church-state separation for decades

That case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, concerned Joseph Kennedy, a former football coach at Bremerton High School who repeatedly prayed with his team at the end of games, violating students’ First Amendment rights by pressuring them to join.

Despite the school district’s attempts to find options for him to have time and space for personal prayer while on the job, Kennedy demanded that he be able to pray at the center of the field, out loud, and with students. When the district, seeking to protect students’ rights, told Kennedy to stop interfering in students’ religious choices, he sued the district.

Americans United, which defended the school district, noted that this case was never about the coach’s rights. It was engineered by First Liberty to get before the U.S. Supreme Court and undermine church-state separation. The radicalized high court accepted the false narrative built by First Liberty and ruled for the coach, ignoring the pressure he put on students.

Football, school, and crosses

“To build the perception that it’s fighting for equality rather than supremacy, the Institute seeks stories that it can blow out of proportion and bend into the Christian persecution narrative,” Seidel adds. That narrative is why the Institute took up Joe Kennedy’s cause in 2015. Trump and the Federalist Society hadn’t yet packed the Supreme Court, and the law was clearly and uniformly against it: public school officials couldn’t use their power and position to impose their personal religion on other people’s children. The Institute ignored the law, perhaps because they saw a cash cow: football, the name Kennedy, a military veteran, and Christian prayer. And it raked in the cash. Before Kennedy, the Institute brought in about $8 million per year; by June 2020 that was up to nearly $15 million.

AU also clashed with the Institute in another Supreme Court case:  Carson v. Makin. This case from  Maine forced taxpayers to fund religious education and indoctrination. In 2019, the Institute fought to keep a massive concrete Christian cross in Bladensburg, Maryland, on government property and fully fund its repairs with your tax dollars—and the Supreme Court agreed. The Institute is currently urging the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case of Oregon bakers who discriminated against a same-sex couple.

The Institute wants Christian supremacy. It fought to keep evolution out of public schools; and advocated for proselytizing Bible classes, Jesus portraits, and school-imposed prayer in public schools. Like other Crusaders, the Institute wraps this supremacy in religious freedom, which the average American understands as equality. 

Political influence and access

Like the rest of this shadowy network, the Institute has political influence and access. U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, now the Speaker of the House, worked as an attorney for First Liberty Institute. The Institute hired a Breitbart editor as senior counsel, who then joined the Trump administration; the January 6th Committee subpoenaed him. Trump nominated another former Institute lawyer for a federal judgeship, but his anti-LGBTQ bigotry was so extreme (for instance, he referred to LGBTQ rights as part of “Satan’s plan”) that the nomination failed. That lawyer is now back with the Institute and helped spin the “deceitful narrative” in the Bremerton case. 

But another Institute lawyer, Matthew Kacsmaryk, is now a federal judge in Texas and using that power to advance the Institute’s Christian Nationalist vision for America by ADD…

Kelly Shackleford has run First Liberty Institute for decades and his tentacles reach right up to our highest court. Shackelford’s ties to Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, were exposed in The New Yorker earlier this year: “when Ginni Thomas was serving as one of eight members on the C.N.P. Action board, it was chaired by Kelly Shackelford.” (C.N.P. is the Council for National Policy, perhaps the most shadowy and powerful member of this network; it’s an umbrella organization formed in 1981 by Christian Nationalist Tim LaHaye.) 

The Institute also challenged public health measures during the pandemic, an issue that repeatedly came before the Court, while Shackelford and Ginni Thomas were serving together on a committee that condemned Covid-19 health orders, explained The New Yorker.

To build the perception that it’s fighting for equality rather than supremacy, the Institute seeks stories that it can blow out of proportion and bend into the Christian persecution narrative. To build the perception that it’s fighting for equality rather than supremacy, the Institute seeks stories that it can blow out of proportion and bend into the Christian persecution narrative.
Football coach Joe Kennedy standing, holding up helmets and praying over a large group of kneeling players on the football field

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