Huffington Post Misinforms in Attack on Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackelford

Huffington Post Misinforms in Attack on Liberty Institute's Kelly Shackelford

Albert Einstein once quipped: “If the facts don’t fit your theory, change the facts.” Chris Rodda’s Huffington Post article from March 7, 2014, “Liberty Institute’s Kelly Shackelford Spreads ‘Fear and Misinformation’ at Air Force Academy Leadership Symposium,” devoted 4,000 words to changing the facts. 

In her article, Rodda got one thing right: Liberty Institute’s President and CEO Kelly Shackelford did in fact speak at the Air Force Academy’s recent National Character and Leadership Symposium. This prestigious event includes scholars, military leaders, corporate executives, and other national leaders. Shackelford fit right into this group; he is an award-winning First Amendment attorney who has argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, serves as a Trustee of the United States Supreme Court Historical Society, and last year was invited to lecture at the Court on the historic Tinker v. Des Moines decision. 

In her article, Rodda accused Shackelford of spreading “fear and misinformation” at the Academy in his lectures about attacks on religious liberty in America, specifically disputing several cases described by Shackelford. 

The problem is that Rodda lacks first-hand knowledge (i.e., the real facts) of the matters on which she opined. As an attorney, I can tell you that the law has a strong preference for first-hand knowledge and knowing the true evidence. And because Shackelford was an attorney in nearly every one of the cases he mentioned, he knows the actual facts of each of those cases.

The Raymond Raines Case

Raymond Raines was a 4th-grader disciplined for praying over his meal at a public school. As “proof” that Raines was not disciplined for praying, Rodda cited school officials and the opinion of a lone Baptist minister who, conveniently, was on the school board. In other words, she gave readers one side of the story and from people who were not witnesses to the occurrence in question. What she failed to mention was that Liberty Institute hired a private investigator who independently verified Raines’ claims and even obtained a tape-recorded admission by the school principal. Additionally, actual witnesses, both children and an adult volunteer at the school that day, saw the actual incident happen. Rodda cited no one at the school who was in the cafeteria and disputes this incident. So Shackelford’s statement was verified (and troubling) truth, unlike Rodda’s false accusation.

Banned Bibles at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. 

Shackelford told the Symposium that Walter Reed Army Medical Center had, until confronted, banned visitors, including family members, from bringing in Bibles for wounded soldiers. Rodda claimed that “everybody knew that this guideline was not intended to apply to family members or friends visiting an individual wounded service member whom they personally knew… Obviously, this was merely a case of a guideline whose intent wasn’t clearly spelled out, but was nevertheless understood by anyone with half a brain.” Rodda claimed the policy was intended only for over-zealous “strangers from outside religious groups.”

Let’s look at the facts, rather than Rodda’s assertion. On September 14, 2011, Walter Reed officials issued an official patient and visitor policy–applying to all visitors–stating, in part:

“No religious items (i.e., Bibles, reading material, and/or artifacts) are allowed to be given away or used during a visit.”

The plain language of that policy unambiguously banned the giving away or use of Bibles and other religious items during visits. If everybody understood this, then why, just three months later, did Walter Reed officials publish the following statement?

“The visitation policy as written was incorrect and should have been more thoroughly reviewed before its release. It has been rescinded.”

If everybody understood the policy so well, there would be no need to call it “incorrect” and to rescind it. If the policy was aimed only at harassing ministers, as Rodda claimed, it would have been continued in some form; but it wasn’t. Whether intentional or not, the policy clearly prohibited the donation or use of Bibles by anyone during visits at Walter Reed. Shackelford, therefore, was correct. That fact is undisputed by those of us with whole brains.

The “Stomp on Jesus” Case

As Shackelford stated, Florida Atlantic University actually did threaten to discipline student Ryan Rotella when he refused to stomp on a piece of paper with “Jesus” written on it. This is indisputable because FAU later issued a public apology to Rotella and stated that the “exercise will not be used again.”

Rodda did not dispute the veracity of the story but tried to create the impression that Shackelford overstated the seriousness of the facts. She contended that because the original “stomp on Jesus” exercise was created at a Catholic college, it could not be “an anti-Christian exercise.” But she misses the point that at the Catholic college no one was punished for non-compliance because the exercise was created to show that most students would not comply with a demand so counter to their faith. At FAU, on the other hand, Rotella was disciplined for non-compliance–a perfect example of Shackelford’s point that Rotella’s religious rights were violated.

Rabbi Facing Criminal Charges

Rodda next accused Shackelford of exaggerating or “totally making up the punishment” when describing the case of a Rabbi being criminally prosecuted. Rodda’s failure to acknowledge this fact is perhaps due to the fact that the attacks on religious freedom are so numerous that she appears to have conflated two unrelated cases. Liberty Institute represents a Jewish synagogue in Dallas that, although facing religious discrimination, is not facing criminal charges. At the same time, Liberty Institute also represents a Jewish synagogue in Houston that is facing criminal charges. Shackelford was referencing the Houston case. Rodda’s accusations are, yet again, incorrect.

The Hosanna-Tabor Case

Once again, those pesky facts appear to have obscured Rodda’s delightful tale. And, once again, deference should be given to Shackelford, who was an eyewitness with a front-row seat in the U.S. Supreme Court to the Hosanna-Tabor argument. The verbatim transcript of the argument reveals that the Solicitor General of the United States did indeed argue that the religion clauses do not protect a religious organization’s right to select its leaders. This is further confirmed by the words of the Court itself: 

“The Court cannot accept the remarkable view that the Religion Clauses have nothing to say about a religious organization’s freedom to select its own ministers.”

Whether out of ignorance, denial, or bias, Rodda escorts the reader right past these facts, diverting them from the truth as revealed by Shackelford. The actual facts and words of the Court itself show her attack to be, yet again, false.

The Balch Springs, Texas Senior Center.

Rodda’s accusation that Shackelford was dishonest with the court in winning this case comes dangerously close to constituting libel. Simply put, a court of law agreed with the facts as set forth by Shackelford: senior citizens, including a man named Barney Clark, suffered unconstitutional violations of their religious rights by a public senior center. Rodda’s “retelling” of the events is twisted to step around the central issues that were verified in court by witnesses under oath.

Ms. Rodda is Senior Research Director for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an organization that opposes the mission of Mr. Shackelford’s Liberty Institute. She may not like the facts Mr. Shackelford presents. Her theories may distort her view of these facts. Ultimately, it is clear that the facts of each of these cases simply do not fit Rodda’s theories. So she took Einstein’s advice and simply changed the facts. Fortunately, the law is primarily concerned with a search for the truth.

Michael Berry, Esq., is a senior counsel at Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization dedicated solely to defending and restoring religious liberty in America. He is Director of Liberty Institute’s Armed Forces Religious Freedom Project.


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