First Liberty Institute announced five victories for houses of worship across the country. Among the cases were those involving freedom for Jewish believers to meet in their homes in New York and California; a decision that struck down a New York law requiring houses of worship to be “gun-free zones”; and a case allowing a historic Texas church, founded by freed slaves, to renovate its property.

The nonprofit Christian organization describes itself as “the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious liberty for all Americans [their emphasis].”

Founded in 1997 by President, CEO and Chief Counsel Kelly Shackelford, the organization is known for high profile cases such as the Supreme Court victory for Coach Joe Kennedy, who was illegally fired by the Bremerton School District for kneeling and silently praying on the football field.

Here are the results in five cases the religious liberty law firm announced on Friday, December 8:

  • First Liberty scored a victory for Jewish Americans in the village of Airmont, New York. Orthodox Jewish believers don’t drive on the Sabbath or other holy days, so “it’s common practice for them to gather in small numbers in homes within walking distance.”

“But the village made it next to impossible for Orthodox Jewish believers to live out their faith. How? Through discriminatory zoning. These ordinances forced congregants to comply with outrageous demands, such as receiving ‘approval’ from the city to worship in their own living rooms,” First Liberty reports. In addition, they were ticketed and fined, with one rabbi facing “over $40,000 in legal fees just trying to meet village demands.” Some who hosted religious gatherings in their homes were “threatened with jail.” The harassment has been going on for thirty years.

With the help of the U.S. Department of Justice, Airmont finally settled with First Liberty clients, “several rabbis and their Orthodox Jewish congregations, who will now be able to worship freely in their homes.”

  • White Rock Chapel, in Addison, Texas, was founded by freed slaves in 1844. According to First Liberty, “A couple of years ago, White Rock Chapel applied for building permits to renovate its property. But the city refused to grant the permits and used zoning regulations to keep the church from living out its faith. Hostile neighbors also kept the church from making renovations.”

The organization sent a letter on behalf of the church, “explaining that the First Amendment and federal law protect the right of churches to operate free from unreasonable and intrusive government interference.”

As a result, “The Council of Addison, Texas unanimously approved a zoning application for our client,” allowing the Chapel to “make improvements to its historic property, gather for worship and Bible study, and serve its surrounding community.”

  • In Beverly Hills, California, city officials had threatened Rabbi Levi Illulian “with civil and criminal proceedings for hosting religious gatherings in his home to meet the religious needs of his family, neighbors and friends.” The city monitored cars and individuals going to and from the Rabbi’s home and used a drone for surveillance.

First Liberty sent two letters urging the city to withdraw its threatening letters, saying the Constitution protected “Rabbi Illulian’s right to engage in religious exercise at his Home with family or friends, free from government burden and interference.”

Beverly Hills officials finally withdrew their “Notice of Violation” against the rabbi.

  • In a fourth case, First Liberty filed a temporary restraining order against the City of Houston for refusing to restore power to Hemish of Houston, a Jewish congregation. Members had been meeting in the building for several years, when “the congregation suffered a significant malfunction of its electrical equipment that resulted in a loss of power to its property.”

The city refused to restore power, because “Heimish was ‘red-flagged’ due to some minor repairs and beautification projects.” Houston had previously showed antagonism toward the Orthodox Jewish congregation, as First Liberty reports, “In 2020, the city attempted to shut down Heimish’s use of its property through the selective enforcement of a deed restriction.”

Just as they secured a victory in that case, the religious freedom law firm succeeded again. First Liberty attorney Ryan Gardner stated, “Our clients are greatly relieved that they will not be forced to celebrate Hanukkah in the dark,”

  • Finally, “the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected the State of New York’s unconstitutional attempt to make His Tabernacle Family Church (“His Tabernacle”) – and all houses of worship in New York – gun-free zones,” reports First Liberty.

The State of New York passed the “Concealed Carry Improvement Act” in 2022; the law prohibited the carrying of firearms in places of worship and religious observance,” explains New Yorkers for Constitutional Freedoms.

“First Liberty Institute and the law firms of Clement & Murphy PLLC and Ganguly Brothers PLLC filed the lawsuit on behalf of His Tabernacle, a nondenominational church in Horseheads, New York, founded by Pastor Micheal Spencer. The court affirmed a preliminary injunction blocking the law in December which the state of New York appealed in January of 2023,” says First Liberty.

Senior Counsel for First Liberty Institute Jeremy Dys stated in a press release, “The court made it clear that the U.S. Constitution grants the right of self-defense for all Americans and houses of worship cannot be disarmed. No American should be forced to sacrifice one constitutionally protected freedom to enjoy another.”

First Liberty explains why it works so hard to protect freedom of religion:

Religious freedom is the first freedom outlined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, and for good reason: it is the foundational right that all others are built upon. And if this cornerstone freedom ever falls, all other freedoms would be at risk of tumbling as well. That’s why protecting and defending it is so important – because to fight for religious freedom is to fight for the future of all freedoms [their emphasis].

Cases like these may not get the media coverage like that received by Coach Kennedy, but they’re important for combatting government overreach. We applaud First Liberty and their continued success in fighting for religious freedom.

Related articles and resources:

Coach Joe Kennedy Finally Rehired After Religious Liberty Win at Supreme Court

Coach Joe Kennedy Returns to the Sidelines: ‘I’m glad that Americans have more religious freedom’

First Liberty Institute

New Hope for Oregon Couple Fined $135,000 for Refusing to Create Cake Celebrating Same-Sex Wedding

Victory for Praying Coach Kennedy at Supreme Court


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