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Religious Freedom Under Attack -- Even in the U.S.

Lindsay Vessey | Open Doors USA | Updated: Oct 08, 2012

Religious Freedom Under Attack -- Even in the U.S.

People in increasing numbers of nations have been allowed to exercise their rights as recognized under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed unanimously in 1948 by the Un­­ited Nations. That declaration says in part:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, alone or in community with others, and, in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.”

Today, however, the world’s brief period of expanding religious liberty may be closing like a parenthesis. 

According to a new report by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, three in every four people in the world are facing high government or social restrictions on religion, up from 70 percent a year earlier. And the share of countries facing extensive government or social restrictions on religious faith, not surprisingly, has also increased sharply, from 31 percent to 37 percent. (The most-affected countries are also among the largest in population, accounting for the disparity in percentages.)

Government restrictions might include laws against “proselytism” or “blasphemy,” while social restrictions, although not carrying the official approval of the state, might include ostracism, the loss of a job, or mob action in response to the exercise of one’s faith. In the case of society-based restrictions on religious liberty, government officials often lend their tacit support by looking the other way when abuses occur.

Even worse, the deterioration in global religious liberty to which these numbers point represents the status quo before — from mid-2009 to mid-2010 — the advent of the so-called “Arab spring,” which has produced even worse attacks on religious liberty. So the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life provides only a partial picture of religious liberty today — but it is a dark one indeed.

Even so, the report highlights the fact of deteriorating religious liberty in the Muslim-dominated Arab world. Pew says that “the Middle East-North Africa had by far the world’s highest levels of social hostilities involving religion as well as government restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.”

Yet, as the overall numbers indicate, the Arab world has had plenty of company in the race to the bottom. “A rising level of restrictions occurred in each of the five major regions of the world,” the Pew report says. “In three regions – Europe, the Middle East-North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa – the median levels of both government restrictions and social hostilities increased from mid-2009 to mid-2010. In the Americas, the median level of government restrictions increased, while in the Asia-Pacific region, the median level of social hostilities increased.”

Yes, you heard that right: Religious liberty seems to be receding right here in the United States, too. “During the latest year studied,” Pew reports, “the U.S. moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time. In the year ending in mid-2010, there was an increase in the number of incidents in the U.S. at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith.” Pew broke down the categories as follows:

  • Individuals prevented from wearing religious garb at correctional facilities;
  • Churches and schools facing difficulties in obtaining required zoning permits to build;
  • Persons attacked or discriminated against because of their faith.

Christians in the United States aren’t the only victims, of course. The recent attack on a Sikh community in Wisconsin is just one of the more visible religiously motivated attacks — an incident too recent for the current Pew report. Yet many of the challenges to religious freedom are far more subtle.

A recent report from The Liberty Institute and The Family Research Council documents 600 cases of religious hostility here in the United States, mostly within the last 10 years ( These incidents have not occurred in a vacuum. The consensus on religious liberty is changing.

“In the United States,” writes Thomas F. Farr of Georgetown University’s Religious Freedom Project, “the understanding of religion as ‘the first freedom’ is under attack by those who view it as a threat to competing priorities. For an increasing number of Americans, it is a claim of privilege that must be balanced against many similar claims, each of which should be given equal weight. In America, religious liberty is at risk of becoming the fifth freedom, or the tenth freedom, or merely special pleading by religious people.”

Therefore, given current trends, we at Open Doors USA believe that the United States federal government needs to reaffirm its commitment to religious freedom. If we no longer understand the importance of this freedom, how can we effectively support persecuted Christians in other countries?

As just one step in the process, we support HR 440 and the Senate version, S. 1245, bills that would empower the president and the Department of State to appoint a special Envoy to Promote Religious Freedom of Religious Minorities in the Near East and South Central Asia. The bill passed the House with overwhelming support but is currently being blocked from a vote in the Senate by Jim Webb of Virginia.  

While we cannot address all the worrisome religious liberty trends with one law, certainly we can begin mending the frayed safety net of religious liberty, both here and around the world. The lives and livelihoods of persecuted Christians may depend on it.

Lindsay Vessey is advocacy director for Open Doors USA (based in Santa Ana, California), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians for 57 years.

Publication date: October 5, 2012

Religious Freedom Under Attack -- Even in the U.S.