Hostility Toward Religion Up 15 Percent Since 2015, Undeniable Survey Reveals

First Liberty Institute documents religious hostility in America every year.

By Liberty McArtor Published on September 14, 2017

Hostility toward religious freedom rose 15 percent in 2016, according to a new report. On Tuesday First Liberty Institute released Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America. The non-profit legal group has released Undeniable every year since 2012. Based in Texas, First Liberty focuses exclusively on religious freedom. The report documents all recorded instances of hostility to religion every year. 

First Liberty president Kelly Shackelford and deputy general counsel Jeremy Dys spoke with reporters via teleconference Tuesday. Justin Butterfield, senior counsel and Editor-in-Chief of Undeniable also joined.

Since 2012, there’s been a 133 percent increase in instances of hostility, they said. Undeniable now includes 1,400 recorded anecdotes of religious discrimination in the U.S. 

“We’re really in the middle of a battle,” Shackelford said. But despite the uptick in recorded discrimination, “things have been going in the right direction” for the past few decades. This year saw the Trinity Lutheran victory for religious freedom at the Supreme Court. The Hobby Lobby case of 2014 was another victory. In 2012 the SCOTUS sided with a veterans memorial with religious imagery. But the victories came by a slim margin. Many decisions, including victories at lower court levels, were split 5-4. 

It’s hard to tell which way it will go for religious freedom in the U.S., Shackelford said. For now, they’re focused on raising awareness and defending those who have faced discrimination for their faith.

Catholic Beliefs a Problem at Work

One client is Alexia Palma. The Houston, Texas resident joined the call Tuesday. 

Not long ago, Palma taught health classes at a Houston clinic. One of her classes was on contraception. A devout Catholic, Palma believes contraception is wrong. She asked her employers if she could show a video during that class instead of teach the information. For a year and a half, they were fine with her request. Then new management came along.

“They told me that I needed to put my religious beliefs aside if I wanted to continue being a health educator there.”

“They told me that I needed to put my religious beliefs aside if I wanted to continue being a health educator there,” she said Tuesday. 

Palma said she was shocked and devastated. “I really loved my job and my patients.” She claims that class constituted just two percent of her job duties. But when she refused to teach it, the clinic fired her. 

After litigation led by First Liberty, Palma said she reached a “friendly settlement” with the clinic. 

Synagogue Faces Zoning Discrimination

Butterfield spoke about another client of First Liberty’s, Congregation Toras Chaim.

The small Orthodox Jewish synagogue is located in Dallas, Texas. For the members, driving on the Sabbath is prohibited. So they have to meet within walking distance of their homes: the rabbi’s house. 

But one neighbor didn’t like the meetings. He sued the synagogue. As it turns out, the religious services violated the neighborhood’s HOA rules. But that’s a problem, Butterfield said. The congregation has no other option when it comes to nearby locations. 

First Liberty fought the neighbor’s lawsuit and won. But victory was short-lived; the city of Dallas soon sued the small congregation. That lawsuit is still ongoing. 

If Toras Chaim loses, its members will have to move to a different community, Butterfield said. 

Dys added that unfair zoning laws are “a big problem” for houses of worship. Undeniable contains several other zoning stories, he said. 

A “Pervasive” Issue

The idea for Undeniable came in the early 2000s, Shackelford said. At the time, Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) were on a Constitution subcommittee. Around 2004, they listened to testimonies of religious hostility in the U.S. Testimonies included several of First Liberty’s clients. Afterward the senators asked if the testimonies represented more than a few isolated incidents. 

“Even we were shocked by how pervasive the issue was.”

To answer their question, the lawyers at First Liberty began serious research. What did they find? Evidence that hostility to religion in the U.S. was widespread. “It wasn’t one area of the country. It wasn’t one age group, one walk of life, one situation,” Shackelford said. “Even we were shocked by how pervasive the issue was.” A few years later, First Liberty decided to produce annual surveys to track the problem.

To compile the survey, the First Liberty team scours news articles, legal filings and other records. They summarize each incident in a few sentences. Each summary includes links or case references so people can find more information, Butterfield said. 

Undeniable is a free resource that the non-profit disseminates as widely as possible. On Tuesday the president, vice president and every member of Congress received copies, Dys said. Stream readers can request free digital and hard copies of Undeniable here.


Disclaimer: Liberty McArtor is a former employee of First Liberty Institute. Today, she occasionally writes for the organization.

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