(CNSNews.com) – The head of the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom says that after many years of having to fight attempts to restrict the First Amendment’s first freedom in court, the tide may finally be turning.
“As somebody who’s committed my whole career to a group whose sole focus is religious freedom, we think that there are just unbelievable opportunities now for advancing religious freedom that we haven’t seen in a long time,” Kelly Shackelford, president and CEO of the First Liberty Institute, told CNSNews.com.
Shackelford pointed out that President Donald Trump “made a lot of promises as a candidate about religious freedom. He’s very committed to making sure that things changed. And so now it’s just going to be a matter of whether those promises are followed through.
“So far, he’s been fulfilling his promises. And I think there’s a lot of people watching, encouraging, pushing, and expecting that. I fully expect the president to do the same thing by advancing and protecting religious freedom.”
On Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., Trump pledged that “my administration will do everything in its power to defend and protect religious liberty in our land.”
Shackelford said that Trump’s nomination of 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court is also encouraging because Gorsuch has a “real solid commitment to religious freedom” as evidenced in his rulings in the landmark Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases, both of which were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.
“When a law demands that a person do something the person considers sinful, and the penalty for refusal is a large financial penalty, then the law imposes a substantial burden on that person’s free exercise of religion,” Gorsuch wrote.
“Our focus is on religious freedom, I mean, that’s all we do. And I just don’t think you could’ve picked a more solid person on religious freedom, someone not only with good credentials, but also someone who has numerous opinions – all really solid – on behalf of religious freedoms,” Shackelford continued.
“People recognize immediately that Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor were both victories on the religious freedom side, and he was on the right side both times.
“So he’s very well respected, has probably the most extensive intellectual credentials of anybody we’ve seen on the Supreme Court – Columbia, Harvard, a Marshall scholar, a Ph.D. from Oxford. Just a brilliant guy, very well respected, humble, and very strong on religious freedom, which is a big issue to us.”
In addition to Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor, Shackelford cited other cases that showcase Gorsuch’s judicial philosophy regarding freedom of religion, including the appellate judge’s ruling in favor of a public display of the Ten Commandments in the Summum case and his dissent in a successful lawsuit to tear down cross-shaped memorials for fallen state troopers.
“He’s been really solid on religious freedom in numerous different areas, and has a lot of opinions to back up exactly what he would do” on the Supreme Court.
CNSNews asked Shackelford if there are any religious liberty cases that the Supreme Court will be considering this year.
“There’s a religious liberty case sitting there, it has yet to be argued, and there’s another one that has religious liberty implications, and that’s a transgender case. So those are two cases that many people think [Gorsuch] will have an impact on when he gets on the court. He’ll probably be the deciding vote on those cases,” he said.
Does he see a rollback of current restrictions on religious liberty anytime soon? CNSNews asked.
“Not immediately,” Shackelford replied. “We have one of those cases of two Oregon bakers, but we’re going to the state court of appeals, which is obviously considered much more liberal. We know that those things are gonna take time.
“And like the Supreme Court, for instance, the replacement of [the late Justice Antonin] Scalia is just that – it’s a replacement of Scalia. That doesn’t change the court, it puts the court back in the stance it was before Scalia’s passing.
“It would be a change if President Trump had a chance to make another appointment where we would actually have real movement on the court, and that hasn’t happened yet, obviously.”
Shackelford dismissed Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s claim that the vacant Supreme Court seat was “stolen” by Republicans when they refused to hold hearings for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland.
“There’s been no consideration of a Supreme Court seat that has been taken during an election year in almost a hundred years. That just doesn’t happen,” he noted. “What happened is, [the Senate GOP leadership] said, ‘Let’s leave that up to the American people’.
“And of course, many, many millions of people voted on that very issue. And they overwhelmingly wanted President Trump to make that replacement.
“So all Sen. Schumer is doing is trying to push against the will of the American people, which was very clear in the election. I don’t think that’s going to get you anywhere.
“Americans want to move past the election. A major reason why [they voted for Trump] was because they wanted him to choose the next justice. And now he’s done it.
“He’s not only done it, but he’s picked somebody with impeccable intellectual credentials and impeccable credentials as far as experience is concerned, and a person with an incredibly gentle and humble temperament. And so you put those together and I think that’s a hard one to stop.
“I expect him to be on the court sooner rather than later. While some will try to make a fight over this nomination, it won’t work. The opposition will dissipate and he’ll be sitting on the Supreme Court before we know it.”