The U.S. Department of State held its second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom this week, which brought leaders from across the globe to work toward recognizing religious freedom as a human right. The event’s website says the goal is to focus on “concrete outcomes that reaffirm international commitments to promote religious freedom and produce real, positive change.”
On the eve of the event, Pew Research Center released a study that shows the increase in religious restrictions around the world, which shows that Christians are the most persecuted religious group. The study looks at atrocities committed by the countries that have consistently been featured in reports like this, including China and Russia, but it also points out an increase in religious harassment in Western nations—notably the United States.
Alliance Defending Freedom is no stranger to hostility toward religion in the United States—often at the hands of the very government officials meant to uphold our religious liberty.
Let’s take a look.
The Pew Research Center study looks at several categories of religious restriction, including: Hostilities related to religious norms, interreligious tension and violence, religious violence by organized groups, and individual and social group harassment. The article related to the study states:
These trends suggest that, in general, religious restrictions have been rising around the world for the past decade, but they have not been doing so evenly across all geographic regions or all kinds of restrictions. The level of restrictions started high in the Middle East-North Africa region, and is now highest there in all eight categories measured by the study. But some of the biggest increases over the last decade have been in other regions, including Europe – where growing numbers of governments have been placing limits on Muslim women’s dress – and sub-Saharan Africa, where some groups have tried to impose their religious norms on others through kidnappings and forced conversions.
In breaking down the Pew Research study for Christianity Today, Griffin Paul Jackson notes:
In all categories, the Americas was the region with the fewest restrictions and hostilities. But even there, all measures point to rising levels of harassment and repression.
Over the period of the study, the number of countries in the Americas with noted government restrictions on religious activities increased from 16 to 28.
In the United States specifically, limits on religious activity and individual or social group hostilities based on religion increased dramatically between 2007 and 2017.
More than 8 in 10 (82%) Americans cite anti-Muslim discrimination in the US, according to a separate Pew study released earlier this year. Anti-Semitism is also up sharply in recent years, especially in the shadow of the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that killed 11 late last year and a significant rise in hate crimes targeting Jews.
Even Christians are feeling the effect of threats to religious freedom, both social and political. A full half of Americans believe evangelical Christians are subject to discrimination in the US, up 8 percentage points from 2016.
In a country where the law of the land explicitly protects religious freedom, it might be baffling to see an uptick in discrimination on the basis of religion. Oftentimes, that discrimination comes from government attempts to circumvent the Constitution in order to target beliefs it doesn’t like.
Of course, the prominent example that comes to mind is the case of Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop. After Jack politely declined to use his creative talents to design a cake that celebrated a same-sex wedding, he endured a seven-year legal battle that pitted him against his home state of Colorado. Jack believes that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, and Colorado state officials went so far as to compare his beliefs to those of slave owners and perpetuators of the Holocaust. The U.S. Supreme Court saw that religious hostility for what it was when it decided Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission in favor of Jack, but the story didn’t end there. Jack is still facing harassment to this day.
Similar to Jack Phillips is Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of the Washington-based floral shop Arlene’s Flowers. Barronelle had served her customer Rob for nearly a decade, happily designing floral arrangements for a variety of occasions, including anniversaries and birthdays. But she politely declined designing a floral arrangement for Rob’s wedding because of her religious beliefs. Despite the fact that Rob did not file a state complaint, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson found out about the situation from a social media post and has pursued her relentlessly since then. If the state of Washington and the ACLU—which joined the lawsuit against her—get their way, Barronelle could lose everything she has just for believing in biblical marriage.
Also in the state of Washington, one church is fighting against a law that forces it to subsidize elective abortions for its employees. Cedar Park Church is explicitly pro-life, so this blatant violation of their religious beliefs at the hands of Washington Governor Jay Inslee led them to file a lawsuit in federal court.
In Maryland, a Christian school is fighting religious discrimination perpetrated by the state’s Department of Education. Bethel Christian Academy accepts and educates students from diverse backgrounds, and, because it is a Christian school, teaches the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. The Maryland Department of Education demanded to see the school’s student handbooks and then booted the school from the state’s school voucher program.
Cities aren’t letting states have all the fun, and one family in Michigan is fighting against being banned from a farmer’s market 22 miles from their farm. The Tennes family of Charlotte, MI, responded to an inquiry on social media and stated that, because of their devout Catholic beliefs, they only would host weddings on their farm that affirm biblical marriage. East Lansing officials saw the response and attempted to ban Country Mill Farms from participating in the city’s farmer’s market. Shortly after filing a federal lawsuit, the court ordered the city to allow the Tenneses to attend the market while the lawsuit is litgated.
These are just a few recent examples of religious hostility happening in the United States. Hauntingly, there are some who are seeking to effectively erase religious freedom altogether with a federal law misleadingly known as the “Equality Act.” Among a litany of freedoms that would be eroded by this proposed law, the so-called Equality Act would gut religious freedom in many situations like those discussed above.
The United States is often seen as a beacon of religious freedom, but if that light is extinguished, it could make all the important progress made at events like the Ministerial all for naught. That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom has worked so long and so hard to ensure that the doors are kept open for the Gospel in the United States and the rest of the world.