Stunning 1,285 Attacks on Religion in US in 2015, 100 Percent Increase Since 2013
In 2015, religion in America suffered 1,285 attacks — a 100 percent increase from only four years ago. The 2016 edition of First Liberty Institute’s Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America reveals an increasingly perilous atmosphere for Christians and those of other faiths to practice their religion. But although
attacks on religious liberty are dramatically increasing in the United States, both in the frequency and in the severity of the attacks, this survey also shows that those persons and organizations who stand up for religious liberty win when they fight.
First Liberty Institute (formerly known as Liberty Institute) describes itself as a nonprofit legal firm “with the sole mission of protecting religious liberty for all Americans.” It aims to “reestablish religious liberty in accordance with the principles of our nation’s Founders, who believed that religious liberty was the ‘first’ liberty — the freedom upon which all others are grounded.” Its president is constitutional scholar Kelly Shackelford.
In an exclusive interview with The Stream, Justin Butterfield, editor of the report and one of the group’s senior counsel, relayed how the attacks have expanded. “Four years ago the idea that a military chaplain would be investigated for simply providing pastoral counseling according to his religious beliefs (as happened with Chaplain Modder) would have been unthinkable.” He went on: “We have also seen the administration argue that the First Amendment protects only religious belief, and we have seen churches have to fight for their very existence. In Houston, First Liberty, for the first time, had to defend a church from being taken by eminent domain.”
One of the biggest attacks last year was the Obamacare mandate requiring employers who provide health coverage to fund contraceptives and the morning-after pill, which was successfully fought off in Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. v. Sebelius. Similarly, attempts by courts to force pharmacists in Washington state to dispense abortifacients were fought off when they obtained a freedom of conscience exception.
But not every group that’s resisted Obamacare has been allowed to act on its beliefs. Butterfield said, “The Little Sisters of the Poor’s case on this will come before the Supreme Court this spring, determining whether these nuns will be forced to provide this coverage for abortion-inducing drugs,” Butterfield said. Since the Little Sisters are a nonprofit group, the courts are treating them differently than Hobby Lobby.
Undeniable describes attacks in the public sphere, including attempts to remove or ban displays of the Nativity and Ten Commandments and prayer at public events. Even private speech and expression came under fire when made in public gatherings; for example, senior citizens at a community center were told they could not pray, listen to religious music or sing gospel songs, while teachers and students across the country were prohibited from expressing their religious views.
Churches and ministries were targeted using zoning laws and permits, and the Department of Justice even tried to tell a private Christian school who it could hire or fire. Employees who had religious objections to abortions and same-sex relationships in the context of their employment were disciplined or terminated. “We’ve seen a rise of attacks on people of faith related to their belief in traditional marriage,” Butterfield said. “Catholic Charities of Boston was forced to shut its doors because they believed that they should place children in homes with a mother and a father.”
Private businesses such as florists and bakers who declined to service same-sex marriage ceremonies faced government investigations and lawsuits. First Liberty recently announced it is representing Aaron and Melissa Klein, the Oregon couple who lost their bakery and were fined $135,000 by the state of Oregon because they ran it according to their religious beliefs.
Even veterans and the military came under attack, and those attacks have been expanding so fast that First Liberty hired Michael Berry, a high-level Judge Advocate and Marine officer, to head its Armed Forces Religious Liberty Project. One of the most egregious attacks there came from the government itself: “U.S. Army training materials provided for an Army Reserve unit in Pennsylvania labeled Evangelical Christians and Catholics as ‘religious extremists,’ along with Hamas and Al-Qaeda.” There were attacks on veterans’ memorials that contained crosses and censorship of religious speech within the military.
The report also included a long list of key court cases with descriptions going back several years. Many of the attacks resulted in litigation, with mixed results. For example, in Cenzon-DeCarlo v. Mount Sinai Hospital, a nurse was allowed to opt out of helping with abortions, but in Walden v. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, a counselor was not permitted to opt out of counseling clients with same-sex relationship problems. Most of the lawsuits were brought by the usual suspects, atheist organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
What the Constitution Actually Says
Given the increasing number and severity of the attacks, organizations like First Liberty must remain on the front lines protecting religious freedom. First Liberty wants people — including government officials — to read the report and learn from the incidents it describes.
But that’s not the sole answer. Butterfield urges people to educate themselves “about what the Constitution actually says and what their religious liberty rights actually are.” He notes that
Too many people don’t know what protections the law provides, and so when they are told they can’t pray before their meals at a senior center, or that they can’t live out their faith, they will know what rights they have and that the persons attempting to whitewash the public sphere of religion are actually wrong and are themselves violating the Constitution.
Yet even with religious freedom organizations like First Liberty expanding, it may not be enough to combat the onslaught of attacks. A relative who works for Child Evangelism Fellowship says the organization is acquiring property near public schools, preparing for the day when they will be kicked out of the schools and no longer allowed to hold Bible clubs for children there. Yet Butterfield is cautiously optimistic.
One of the great things about Undeniable is that it shows that when people of faith take a stand for their rights, they win. We still have strong protections for religious liberty in America, and many of the incidents in Undeniable occurred even though they were clearly illegal. Unfortunately, many of these incidents of hostility to religion are only unconstitutional because of one vote on the Supreme Court. Even one vote could swing many of these cases and institutionalize the hostility to religion.
Time will tell if groups like First Liberty can keep up with the increasing pace of attacks. Fortunately, First Liberty boasts a “99 percent win rate — the highest win rate of any religious defense organization.”