The Nation's Pulse

Religion Under Harassment

A new report surveys the the ever growing hostility toward religious belief in America.

By 9.25.12

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The U.S. remains a hospitable home for religious believers. Whatever their problems, American Christians are not persecuted, in contrast to many people of faiths overseas, who often are beaten, imprisoned, and murdered for their faith. Nevertheless, a new report from the Liberty Institute catalogs rising hostility toward religious believers in recent years. 

In its report, "The Survey of Religious Hostility in America," the Institute raises an important warning: "Our first freedom is facing a relentless onslaught from well-funded and aggressive groups and individuals who are using the courts, Congress, and the vast federal bureaucracy to suppress and limit religious freedom. This radicalized minority is driven by an anti-religious ideology that is turning the First Amendment upside down."

This may overstate the danger, since the First Amendment remains a legal bulwark and most Americans remain friendly to religion. However, those antagonistic to religion increasingly are turning to government. Many supported the Obama administration mandate forcing faith organizations to cover contraception. Similar attitudes may animate the shift in administration rhetoric from freedom of religion to freedom of worship. This change, warned the organization, "threatens to make true religious liberty vulnerable, conditional, and limited" by suggesting that only "worship within the four walls of your home, church, or synagogue, but when you enter the public square the message is, 'leave your religion at home.'" 

The Institute's list is long and impressive, though mixed. Hostility obviously exists. However, not all hostility warrants legal or political action. Just as people of faith have a right to worship, those without faith have a right not to do so, and even to act out their disagreements toward believers. Tolerance toward all would encourage social peace, but cannot be forced through coercion.

Indeed, Jesus warned his followers that they would face opposition: "In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33) They should not seek state power to minimize private hostility but instead should respond to criticism with charity. Believers should, however, fight back strongly when the state acts against them.

Many cases described by the Institute involve restrictions on believers practicing their faith. For instance, Ohio State prisoners were forced to sue to win accommodation with their religious faith. Two men successfully sued to evangelize without a permit at a festival in Fairborn, Michigan. A counselor at the federal Centers for Disease Control was fired for refusing to engage in relationship counseling for gay couples. A Christian group went to court to overturn Dearborn, Michigan's ban on distributing religious tracts near an Arab festival. The same city sought to force ministers to sign away their constitutional rights in return for receiving permission to preach in public areas of the city.

Mount Sinai Hospital threatened to fire a nurse for refusing to participate in a late-term abortion. Apartment managers won a settlement after being fired for displaying religious artwork in the office. Vermont unsuccessfully sought to bar residents from creating vanity license plates with Bible verses. An evangelist successfully sued the U.S. Park Service when it attempted to stop him from passing out literature. The city of Ithaca, New York threatened to arrest a minister for preaching loudly in public. Jacksonville, Florida restricted an evangelist who sought to preach on a public sidewalk. The city of San Antonio arrested two men for evangelizing on public sidewalks. Hewlett-Packard fired an employee who hung anti-homosexual scriptures in his cubicle in response to corporate posters depicting a gay employee.

Federal courts banned a Catholic mass as part of "A Touch of Italy" festival in the village of Crestwood, Illinois. The Washington State Board of Pharmacy issued a rule, overturned in court, requiring pharmacists to dispense abortifacients. Wisconsin fined a pharmacist for refusing to provide oral contraceptives. A minister went to federal court to win the right to preach at a public festival in Duluth, Minnesota. Chicago arrested people for proselytizing at a Catholic festival only to lose in federal court. A public transportation system banned Christian advertising, and also lost in court.

Settled were cases involving a transportation agency which fired a bus driver for refusing to drive a woman to Planned Parenthood, a Christian professor denied the position of Observatory Director by the University of Kentucky because of his faith, and two workers fired by the University of Texas (Arlington) for privately praying for a co-worker after hours. The so-called New Mexico Human Rights Commission fined a Christian-owned photography company for refusing to handle a same-sex marriage. 

The Department of the Interior threatened to review all of the outgoing emails of an employee who requested not to receive departmental emails on the month-long celebration of "gay and lesbian pride." Jacksonville, Florida police arrested a man for evangelizing on public property. The City of Cumming, Georgia arrested a man for distributing religious tracts on public sidewalk without a permit. A woman filed suit against a Texas school district in order to hand out religious materials outside a high school. The University of Wisconsin ordered a resident assistant not to lead a Bible study in his dorm. 

In Batch Springs, Texas, the senior citizens' center told visitors to stop praying before meals and singing religious songs. An agnostic family sued the city of San Diego for leasing parkland to the Boy Scouts. Illinois pharmacists successfully overturned a state rule requiring them to fill contraception prescriptions. A mall in Westfield, California banned a man from sharing the Gospel. The Gay and Lesbian Services Organization sued a Christian-owned business for refusing to make a gay pride t-shirt. The Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a legal complaint against a florist who refused to deliver flowers to the organization after it sued to remove a school prayer banner.

A Jew went to court to force the Colorado Department of Corrections to accommodate his keeping of the Sabbath. Muslim police officers sued to win the right to grow beards. A Chabad rabbi sued the army to allow him to keep his beard. 

Lambda Legal sued a Hawaiian Bed and Breakfast for refusing to rent to a Lesbian couple. Cisco fired an employee who expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage outside of work. Cargill Food fired an employee for similar reasons. A local Chamber of Commerce fired an employee for wearing a Ten Commandments lapel pin. Berkeley County, South Carolina banned religious signs. Kentucky and Tennessee rejected religious vanity license plates. 

The Federal Reserve forced a private bank to eliminate a Christmas message from its website, though later reversed course under pressure. The Janesville, Wisconsin police department barred an officer from posting an announcement of a prayer group, but then relented under legal pressure. A Boys & Girls Club barred an eight-year-old from singing Kum Ba Yah in a talent show because of the words "Oh, Lord." A city recreation facility in Northglenn, Colorado banned a swim coach for sharing his faith. 

In many of these cases, the government was out of line attempting to limit private religious activities. In others private companies were, or should have been, within their legal rights in ordering employees to keep their religious beliefs off-premises. However, in both cases hostility toward religion was evident. A live and let live attitude -- which should equally extend to non-believers, of course -- would be a far better policy in most of these cases.

THE FORGOING IS BUT THE TIP of the proverbial iceberg of First Amendment litigation, however. In a number of cases government actively sought to suppress free speech by religious people. Several cities attempted to mandate disclosures by pregnancy resource centers that do not support abortion. Others sought to limit the activities of anti-abortion protesters. Phoenix, Arizona employed a noise ordinance against religious organizations, such as ringing church bells. The Dallas Housing Authority banned religious services on its property, before retreating under pressure. 

Invocations and prayers at government functions and on government property generated many lawsuits. There is little consistency in the rulings, other than the tendency of jurists to count the number of angels dancing on pinheads in order to distinguish one case from another. In Colorado a state court voided the governor's proclamation of a day of prayer for favoring those who prayed over those who did not do so. In Lodi, California, the city was attacked for allowing any citizen, of faith or no faith, to offer an invocation before city council meetings.

Holiday observances, too, have sparked extensive litigation. Suits have been filed when government closed offices on or allowed workers to take off religious holidays. Lawsuits over Christmas decorations -- including crèches, menorahs, nativity scenes, and Christmas trees -- are endless and the rulings are endlessly arbitrary, resting on fine distinctions rarely observable to the untrained legal eye. 

Lawsuits even have been threatened when government employees put up religious decorations in their own offices. The Petoskey, Michigan School Board gave up plans to return to Christmas Break from Winter Holiday Break when threatened with a lawsuit. Public protests caused Merced, California to abandon plans to change the name of its Christmas Parade to Holiday Parade. A suit was filed against the erection of the World Trade Center cross, made up of two steel girders saved from the wreckage of the two original buildings. One housing authority told residents of its senior citizen facilities that they could not sing Christmas carols.

Another government seniors' home told residents that they could not display religious decorations outside of their rooms. The Indiana Department of Health banned "Christmas" parties, even during the lunch hour, before retreating after receiving a legal demand letter. A school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told students and teachers not to say "Merry Christmas." In Naples, Florida, a fire station removed Christmas lights in response to neighborhood complaints. A library in Chandler, Arizona, eliminated its holiday display, with materials on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, after a pastor requested inclusion of books on Christmas.

LEGAL BATTLES ALSO SURROUND government memorials and monuments. Crosses are the most obvious point of contention. For instance, the Association of Atheists and Freethinkers complained about a cross erected privately at Camp Pendleton to the memory of all fallen Marines. Displays of the Ten Commandments suffer a similar fate, with cases revolving around whether their role is seen as secular or religious. Similar challenges, with similar results, are regularly launched over government mottos, sculptures, and seals. Longevity, history, and tradition mean little when religious symbols are involved. While Richmond County, Virginia's 130-year-old seal survived an establishment challenge, the 90-year-old seal for the city of Zion, Illinois, did not. 

Schools, from elementary through university, provide another constant battleground. One set of issues involve the right to start religious clubs and use school facilities. Schools often resist, with frequent success, student efforts to organize, sometimes on the grounds of "nondiscrimination." Schools have attempted to censor student papers and readings, valedictory speeches, research projects, class participation, songs, pictures, poetry, event invitations, Valentine's Day cards, clothes, jewelry, greeting cards, community service, and personal gifts to eliminate any religious content, as well as limit political speech, such as the wearing of t-shirts. University graduate programs in counseling have begun to expel students unwilling to affirm homosexuality. 

Miami-Dade Community College threatened to arrest students who distributed religious cards on campus. Pellissippi State Community College barred students from handing out Christian materials. A lawsuit was filed to prevent a high school choir from singing religious songs. The Santa Rosa County, Florida school district prohibited students or teachers from saying "God bless." Teachers and administrators have thrown away students' Bibles and book covers with religious themes.

Student-initiated and -led prayers routinely face legal challenge. In many cases schools concede the issue without a formal legal fight. At the College of Alameda two students were suspended for "disruptive behavior" for praying in an office. Two years of legal battles ensued with a student victory. 

Litigation has been intense involving scholarship, choice, and voucher programs. The legal distinctions between decisions are as arcane and arbitrary as elsewhere. Free speech by teachers and administrations also often is at issue. A high school principal and athletic director were charged with criminal contempt for praying over a meal. Pennsylvania barred teachers from wearing religious jewelry. A Clay County, Florida principal was sued by the assistant principal for including religious comments in emails. A biology teacher in Capistrano, California, was forbidden from discussing religious topics on school grounds, even outside of class.

A professor successfully sued the University of North Carolina-Wilmington for denying a promotion based on his religious and political views expressed off-campus. The University of Toledo fired a professor for writing a newspaper editorial on her religious views of homosexuality. The University of Illinois fired and then reinstated an adjunct professor for lecturing on homosexuality in his introductory class on Catholicism. A Santa Barbara, California principal was fired for participating in a community prayer breakfast -- and later was reinstated by a federal judge. Religious schools also have faced legal challenges when attempting to enforce doctrinal requirements on teachers, though the courts generally supported the schools.

Another set of legal battles revolve around the access of religious students to school facilities. The Supreme Court affirmed that Hastings Law School could violate the right of association of religious students in the name of nondiscrimination. Variants of this policy played out across the nation at high schools and universities. 

Schools routinely found themselves threatened with lawsuits for holding graduation ceremonies in religious facilities even for nonreligious reasons. Several libraries banned the discussion of religious books or use of space by religious groups. Land use restrictions, especially on the construction or expansion of church or para-church buildings, also are common. Discrimination against religious organizations hurts Islamic and Jewish religious communities as well as Christian ones.

Most of the forgoing cases should never have ended up in court. Most of them could have been resolved with a little more good will on one side or the other. Very few represent irreconcilable conflicts.

Non-believers are, and should remain, free to reject religion. However, hostility toward faith appears to be rising, which is not good for Christians or anyone else. It is more important than ever for religious people to be vigilant and resist state threats against this most fundamental liberty.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).