In 27 years of representing people in religious freedom cases, Kelly Shackelford said he has seen a ratcheting up of attacks recently.

The number of legal issues his organization is involved with has doubled in the past three years.

"As our culture sort of begins to slowly drift from belief in God, then there's less respect for religious freedom," Shackelford said.

He said people are under the misimpression that "if you see religion in public, it should be removed and put in private."

"We believe in the ability of people to bring their faith into the marketplace," he said, adding that it can be a part of the exchange of ideas.

Shackelford, who is president, CEO and chief counsel for First Liberty in Plano, visited Tyler Monday to speak to some East Texas leaders about what is happening with religious freedom nationwide.

On display next to him was a two-inch thick spiral bound book that detailed past and current religious freedom cases.

Two years ago, First Liberty was involved in 260 legal matters, he said. Last year, that number almost doubled reaching 513, and that was with turning 90 percent of requests away, Shackelford said. The nonprofit will have to grow to support more cases, he said.

The way First Liberty works is this: The staff of 35 in Plano provides the background and expertise in religious freedom law, along with media relations and other support, while volunteer lawyers from around the country provide the skill and passion and argue the case in court. Of the 35 people on staff in Plano, about 12 are attorneys.

As a nonprofit, First Liberty represents people in religious freedom cases free of charge. This is possible through donations of money and time.

For every $10,000 the organization spends on a case, it receives about $60,000 worth of donated services from lawyers, Shackelford said.

Some of the nonprofit's past and present cases include: the Oregon couple whose business went under after they refused to bake a cake for a same-sex marriage ceremony; a 5-year-old Florida girl who said a school employee told her to stop praying before eating her lunch; a high school football coach who was suspended by the school district for engaging in private prayer at midfield after football games despite the school district's refusal to grant religious accommodation; and a Navy chaplain whose military career could have come to an abrupt end after some sailors and his commander disagreed with the views he shared during counseling sessions, particularly regarding sex outside of marriage and homosexuality.

The organization has represented people of many faiths - Christians, Jews, Muslims, Native American faith practitioners and followers of the Falun Gong (a Chinese spiritual practice), Shackelford said.

"We believe, along with the founding fathers, that defending religious minorities is crucial," Shackelford said, according to an emailed statement. "When you protect one person of faith, you protect people of all faiths. None of us want the government interfering with our religious beliefs."

Shackelford said what is happening is that people are being treated differently because of their religious expression.

It's as though people believe they have a right to be free from seeing another person express their religion, he said.

"People have a right to live out their faith and others have a right to not participate," he said.

Shackelford said the next three to five years would be an important time for religious freedom.

For the first time in his life, he is seeing the whole concept of religious freedom being challenge and questioned.

"If we lose it, it's devastating for everybody, what it eventually means," Shackelford said.

This nation was founded on the idea of religious freedom, and if people lose that, the loss of other freedoms will soon follow, he said.

"People have a right to have their beliefs," Shackelford said. "That's what America's all about."


Twitter: @TMTEmily



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