I am always puzzled by people scoffing at the notion that attacks on our religious liberty are intensifying. They seem either too preoccupied with other aspects of life or are unconvinced that the evidence is compelling enough to warrant concern. That had better change.
Approximately 75 percent of the world’s seven billion people live in countries with either a high level of government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion, up from 70 percent a year earlier, according to a study released Sept. 20 by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. The study rated restrictions on religion to be at “low, moderate, high” or “very high” levels in each nation. While sobering, such reports do not surprise Americans because a free press and social media enable us to hear and read about religious persecution in the rest of the world.
What is so alarming about this particular report is – for the first time since Pew began studying worldwide restrictions on religion – it reveals that the United States is becoming more hostile toward religion. The United States is no longer in the “low” category when it comes to restrictions on religion, but has risen to the “moderate” category, an unprecedented and alarming development. It is not something expected out of a nation founded by immigrants escaping religious persecution who would build a freedom-loving society based on a Judeo-Christian ethic.
“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,” according to the study. “This included incidents in which individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols,” it added. Examples ranged from men unable to wear beards in prison to restrictions on children wearing religious attire in public schools. “The increase also reflects a rise in the number of reported religion-related workplace discrimination complaints,” the study said.
Some of the increase in government restrictions on religion included religious groups facing difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions. Such instances occur when cash-strapped local governments target religious entities owning prime property for which the religious entity generates no property tax revenue because of its tax-exempt status. The U.S. Justice Department — in a report marking the 10th anniversary of the passage of Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 — noted that 31 of its 51 land-use investigations from 2000-2010 involved Christian groups, while the bulk of the remaining 20 investigations involved religious minorities. Pressure has grown in recent years for financially troubled European governments to eliminate the church’s tax-exempt status.
How long might it be before such action comes to our shores? It may be closer than we think. American infatuation with radical egalitarian, relativistic philosophy – in which equal outcome trumps equal opportunity – has caused many Americans to view all religions equally, not just in freedom to practice, but in truth claims. In the process religion is being devalued, resulting in greater hostility toward it. A reader’s comment to an Aug. 25 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article captures this idea: “Tax these (Christian churches) Taliban scumbags out of existence.”
Not an election goes by without Southern Baptist pastors getting a threatening letter from Barry Lynn and the liberal Americans United For Separation of Church and State, warning them about any political activity and making them think their tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service could be revoked (I’ll have more to say about this in my next column). In the history of our nation, no church has EVER lost its tax-exempt status because of political activity. Lynn’s scribbling carries no authority, but it does remind us there are those, besides government, who would challenge our religious liberty.
Speaking of the government, ObamaCare is a grave threat to religious freedom. Its mandate requiring religious institutions, like Southwest Baptist University, Hannibal-LaGrange University, the Missouri Baptist Children’s Home and even the Missouri Baptist Convention staff – to provide abortion-causing drugs and possible sterilization in their health insurance coverage for their workers, is a move that would violate their conscience and the teachings of their faith. If the mandate stands, many Christians are prepared to ignore the law and accept whatever punishment the government decrees, including substantial fines or imprisonment.
I urge you to pray, asking God to protect our religious freedom. It is also important to closely examine the candidates running for public office and include their view of religious freedom in your consideration of whether they are worthy of your vote. As the Pew study shows, our precious freedom of religion is slipping away.