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Religious Freedom Suffers Steep Decline in the U.S., Mirroring Global Trend

by Paul Rasor, Center Director

“A rising tide of restrictions on religion spread across the world between mid-2009 and mid-2010,” including the United States.  This is the conclusion of a comprehensive report by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released in September 2012, the third such study Pew has undertaken in the past six years.  The trend is unmistakable and worrisome.

The report measures two types of restrictions on religion: government restrictions – those imposed by law or official policy, and social hostilities – restrictions that are the result of violence or intimidation by private individuals and groups, including other religious groups.  Countries are evaluated according to a complex set of criteria and then placed into four groups for each type according to the degree of restrictions found: very high, high, moderate, or low.  Restrictions on religion increased in two-thirds (66%) of the world’s countries between mid-2009 and mid-2010, the period covered by the latest report, and 37% of all countries now have high or very high restrictions.  Both the rate of increase and the actual numbers are far higher than in previous periods.  Many of these countries are among the world’s most populous, which means that three-quarters of the world’s 7 billion people live in countries that have serious restrictions on religious freedom. 

Moreover, this worsening trend is evident is all regions of the world, including many countries in the West that have traditionally had strong protections for religious freedom.  Ten countries in Western Europe, including Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK, experienced increases in both governmental restrictions and social hostilities.  Only three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden, improved in both categories.

Sadly, the United States is among the countries with significantly worsening records.  In terms of government restrictions, the US was removed from the list of countries with “low” levels of restrictions and moved into the “moderate” group – on a par with Spain, Cambodia, and Croatia.  The US was already in the “moderate” group in terms of social hostilities, but in the new study it shot to the top of that group, right next to Syria.  Indeed, the US barely avoiding being placed in the group of countries with “high restrictions” on religion.  This is a shameful position for a country that is widely regarded as a model for religious liberty.

What accounts for this worsening situation?  World-wide, one of the most significant factors is the increased harassment and intimidation of specific religious groups.  This was apparent in both the government restrictions and social hostilities indexes.  Forms of government harassment include arrests and detentions of members of religious minorities, desecration of holy sites, and favoritism or discrimination in areas such as employment and education.  Social hostilities include verbal or physical assaults, harassment of women for violating codes of dress or behavior, violence or threats relating to religious conversions, and abuse of religious minorities for acts offensive to majorities.  

In the US, government restrictions on religion typically appear in institutional contexts such as judicial settings and correctional facilities, according to the report.  Individuals may be prevented from wearing certain religious clothing or symbols, including beards.  Prisoners have been denied the right to change their religious designation and at times prevented from participating in religious exercises.  In addition, religious groups have had problems obtaining zoning or other permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools, or similar institutions.  Many of these restrictive official actions have been held to violate the 2000 federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), yet they continue.

Several factors contributed to the rise in social hostilities in the US.  According to the report, one of the key factors was “a spike in religion-related terrorist attacks” during the period covered by the report.  Other factors include efforts by local residents to block construction of mosques and a sharp rise in the numbers of religion-based complaints of workplace discrimination. 

Overall, this worsening record reminds us that we cannot take our religious liberties for granted, even in the United States.  This is why the Center’s work is so important.

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