Some think of religious persecution as only physical violence, but the First Amendment is designed to protect against much more than that. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
This year, America earned a place of dishonor alongside Iraq, Syria, Russia, and North Korea in the “Hall of Shame,” an annual report detailing religious persecution by respected global watchdog, International Christian Concern (ICC). The Pew Research Center also categorizes the current state of social hostility against religion in America as “high.”
Some think of religious persecution as only physical violence, but the First Amendment is designed to protect against much more than that. Since 2012, First Liberty Institute — the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious freedom for all Americans—has been investigating the rise in the number and severity of domestic attacks on religion.
This year’s findings, detailed in “Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America (2017 Edition),” are unprecedented. In the past year, the total number of documented attacks on religious liberty increased by over 15 percent, contributing to an alarming 133 percent increase in the last five years alone. The cases range from a small Orthodox Jewish synagogue prohibited from meeting in a rabbi’s home to a young Catholic immigrant fired from a health care clinic for refusing to promote contraceptives, which would be a violation of her faith.
This dramatic rise in the number of religious liberty cases supports the findings of noted sociologist Dr. George Yancey, outlined in his book So Many Christians, So Few Lions(2015). After careful research into the roots of American religious hostility, Dr. Yancey discovered what he called widespread “irrational” animus toward Christian beliefs among those with higher educational degrees and privileged societal positions.
Dr. Yancey’s findings go beyond their implications for any one religion. Of the 1,400 cases in “Undeniable,” there are documented attacks on myriad faiths, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, among many others. Approximately 77 percent of Americansconsider themselves part of some religious faith. Hostility threatening the unlawful suppression of any religion is a threat to all religions and our American ideal of a free marketplace of faiths and ideologies.
The Trump administration has taken some initial steps to address the problem. On May 4, 2017 — the National Day of Prayer — President Trump stood alongside national religious leaders and signed the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Liberty. The executive order declares: “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” This executive order should have been both unnecessary and unremarkable; yet activists began threatening legal challenges to President Trump for supporting the First Amendment before the ink had even dried.
Ironically, those who deny the rise in religious hostility in America are also among those who launched the very attacks that caused the crisis. In 2016, a noted Harvard professor wrote that people of certain religious beliefs had lost the “culture wars” in America and should be treated with no leniency.
Similarly, last year the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights sent a report titled “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties” to President Obama and Congress, denouncing routine religious exemptions as an infringement on civil rights and declaring that the phrases “religious liberty” and “religious freedom” are nothing but “code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy, or any form of intolerance.” According to the report, people of faith can and should be forced to do what their faith says they cannot — a direct prohibition of the free exercise of religion.
Despite the rising hostility, there is hope. The battle for religious freedom can be won in courts of law; but ordinary Americans must first acknowledge the crisis, educate themselves about their rights, and be prepared to stand against religious liberty’s relentless attackers.
That is the story of “Undeniable.”
Kelly Shackelford is president and CEO of First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all. UNDENIABLE: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America, 2017 edition, is available at FirstLiberty.org.