By Nate Madden
WASHINGTON (CNS) – A new report from the Liberty Institute in Plano, Texas, shows that incidents of “religious hostility” have more than doubled in the U.S. over the past three years.
The report, “Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America, 2014 Edition,” chronicles a series of more than 1,300 court cases recently handled or monitored by the institute, a nonprofit legal group that represents plaintiffs who feel their religious liberty has been violated.
“The freedom to openly exercise your faith is under intolerant, growing, damaging attack,” reads the opening statement. “If this hostility is not identified, defeated and deemed socially unacceptable, then we will forfeit the benefits of religion and freedom. We will risk watching our freedom and our American way of life destroyed.”
“A lot of people think that this only happens in China or North Korea,” Justin Butterfield, editor-in-chief of the survey, told Catholic News Service. “We published ‘Undeniable’ to get people to realize that religious persecution is something that happens here in the United States.”
The new edition of the report has four main sections: attacks on religious freedom in the public arena, in academic settings, against churches and ministries and in the military.
“The thing to remember is that not only are these attacks on liberty becoming more numerous, but the types of cases we’re seeing are getting worse,” said Butterfield. “I never would have imagined that a presidential administration would argue in favor of protecting religious belief but not religious action and practice, but that’s exactly what the government did in the Hosanna-Tabor case.”
He was referring to the government’s lawsuit over a Lutheran school’s firing of a teacher. In its 2012 decision in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, the court unanimously rejected the government’s attempt to more narrowly define who is a religious employee and upheld a “ministerial exception” to federal anti-discrimination laws. The case is included in the “churches and ministries” section.
The “public arena” category of the survey describes challenges to praying in public, publicly displaying Nativity scenes or menorahs and displaying the Ten Commandments. A legal challenge to prayers delivered prior to town council meetings in Greece, New York, reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Last May, the court ruled 5-4 that the prayers in Greece did not violate the Constitution.
The category also includes the federal requirement that most employers cover contraceptives for their employees among high-profile attacks on religious liberty. Dozens of challenges to the mandate continue to make their way through the courts. Most employers, including religious ones, are required to cover employees’ artificial birth control, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs, even if employers are morally opposed to such coverage.
As an example of attacks on religion in a school or academic setting, the survey described the case of a third-grader who was told he could not include a religious message in the goodie bags that he was bringing to a party to share with his classmates. In another case, a Houston-area school district banned religious items at Christmas and Valentine’s Day cards that contained religious content. In both instances the courts ruled on allowing religious messages.
Regarding the military, the report recalls the case of Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Philip Monk, who after 19 years of service was relieved of his position and reassigned because of his views on marriage.
It said that when Sgt. Monk returned from a deployment to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, he had a new commander who was openly gay. She asked his views on same-sex marriage. He declined to answer. She insisted, the report said, and after he said he believed in the “biblical view of marriage,” she had him reassigned despite his “spotless record.”
When he reported the situation to his superiors, Air Force investigators initially charged him with making false official statements. Eventually the charges were dropped and he was awarded a Meritorious Service Medal.
Another example of religious hostility in the military was an informational slide listing Catholicism, evangelical Christianity and other religious groups along with Hamas and al-Qaeda under the heading of “Religious Extremism” that was used in a training briefing for about 100 Army Reserve soldiers.