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Religious freedom under assault

The next time you walk into church, or your synagogue or mosque, say a little thanks to God for our founding principles. There's a lot for which to be grateful, after all, and the freedom to worship is among our greatest blessings.


But a new report by Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life has revealed a disturbing pattern: Nearly a third of the globe's population — 2.2 billion people — live in countries where religious persecution increased between 2006 and 2009.

Observers have often assumed that over time, the world would progress toward what political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously called "the end of history," when Western liberal democracy would triumph over all ideological competitors. But instead, we are seeing a marked erosion of what America's Founding Fathers considered the "first freedom": the liberty of religious conscience. Even in America, there are signs that our historic commitment to this freedom is wavering.

The countries with the largest populations in the world, India and China, are among the worst offenders in social harassment or government restrictions on religion. No surprise, there. In China, the government commonly imprisons dissidents, ranging from those of the Falun Gong spiritual movement to pastors of Christian house churches. Even now, Beijing authorities are seeking to shut down the evangelical Shouwang Church, which has dared to hold outdoor assemblies.

Christians being targeted

In the Middle East, the "Arab Spring" has not been auspicious for religious liberty. The uprisings against repressive governments have precipitated a treacherous new era for the region's Christian minorities. According to the Pew report, Egypt was already the world's largest country with rising levels of government restrictions on religion before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak; since then, the situation has grown even worse.

In the past six months, appalling religious violence has convulsed Egypt, especially against its Coptic Christians. Rumors about a Coptic convert to Islam being held against her will led to vicious rioting on May 8, leaving 15 dead, 200 injured, and churches looted and burned. This was only one in a series of anti-Christian incidents that has respected Middle East journalist Yasmine El Rashidi warning of an Islamist takeover in Egypt. In the Pew report, Muslim-dominated countries tended to have both high government restrictions and social pressures against religious freedom.

And what about in the USA? You won't see the kind of religious persecution here as in other parts of the world, but religious freedom is taking its hits. This is not a problem rooted exclusively in the political left or right, either.

As one might expect, some Muslims in America have faced persistent harassment since 9/11. Opponents have attempted legal measures to stop the construction of Muslim worship sites, from the controversial (and, I would argue, unnecessarily provocative) Islamic center at Ground Zero, to a neighborhood mosque in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Certain Republican leaders, such as Herman Cain, have proposed loyalty oaths for Muslims serving in government. Really. Overall, the FBI reports that more than 1,500 religious hate crimes occur annually, although the majority target Jews.

But Christians in the U.S. take their lumps, too, when it comes to religious freedom. These range from the frivolous — such as a recent (and unsuccessful) Freedom from Religion Foundation lawsuit to ban Texas Gov. Rick Perry from holding "The Response," his prayer rally in Houston — to real judicial infringements.

Freedom and the courts

Earlier this month, for instance, a federal appeals court approved San Diego State University's policy of denying a Christian sorority and fraternity official campus benefits simply because the groups restricted membership to Christians.

And in October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in what might become the most significant religious liberty case in decades, Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, which will, disconcertingly, consider whether a religious school has the right to fire a teacher who contradicts official church teachings.

Should the court rule against Hosanna-Tabor, it could indicate that American courts will intrude more and more upon the internal affairs of religious organizations, dictating that the right to free exercise must bow before judges' and bureaucrats' current conceptions of legal equity. Placing religious groups under special legal disadvantages, and forbidding them from operating according to their own beliefs, is certainly not what the Founders had in mind when they banned an "establishment of religion" in the First Amendment.

Let's hope that, instead, America will renew its commitment to the genius of the First Amendment's religion clauses. The government should never promote the interests of any one faith — including secularism — but should protect the free exercise of religion for all.

In light of the Pew report, the world needs our example more than ever.

Thomas S. Kidd is a senior fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, and the author of books such as God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution and Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots, forthcoming in November.

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