Threats To Religious Liberty In 2009, Mountains And Molehills

charles-c-haynes Commentary
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

A very bad year for religious liberty got worse earlier this month when the Russian Supreme Court upheld a regional court ruling prohibiting Jehovah’s Witnesses from gathering to worship and banning their publications as “extremist” literature.

Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia are not alone. As documented by the U.S. State Department’s 2009 report on International Religious Freedom released in October, conditions are bleak for tens of millions of people around the world who are facing persecution, imprisonment and even death for doing nothing more than following their conscience in matters of faith.

Meanwhile in the United States, we are busy fighting over the utterance of “so help me God” on the Capitol steps. On Dec. 15, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments in the case of Newdow v. Roberts, a lawsuit challenging the chief justice of the United States for tacking on a mention of God to the presidential oath as well as prayers at presidential inaugurations.

What counts as a threat to religious liberty, it would appear, depends largely on where you live.

Truth be told, most religious people around the world would give anything to live in a country where the top 10 religious-liberty news stories of 2009 include disputes over Christian-themed license plates, Ten Commandments monuments on public property, and a lonely cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Not to belittle our American battles, but let’s keep them in perspective. While we argue over whether to crèche or not to crèche in a public school lobby, leaders of the Baha’i faith languish in an Iranian prison, members of the Falun Gong are imprisoned and tortured in China, Jews are harassed in Venezuela, Christians are attacked in Iraq — and the list goes on across the globe.

Of course, just because church-state conflicts at home look like molehills when juxtaposed to the mountains of religious persecution abroad doesn’t mean that our debates in the U.S. don’t matter. On the contrary, arguments over such issues as religious displays in government settings or state funding for faith-based initiatives are a necessary and inevitable part of the ongoing work of defining what it means to live free from government imposition of religion under the First Amendment.

Having said that, Americans sue way too much. Instead of doing more to seek common ground on the constitutional role of religion in public life, we often allow extreme (and angry) voices to dominate the debate. Calling the lawyer should be the last resort, not the first recourse.

Our incessant legal fights are symptomatic of deep divisions in the United States along religious and ideological lines. In 2009, the fissures widened as religious forces on both sides battled it out over same-sex marriage, one side winning in Maine and the other side victorious in Washington, D.C. And then there was the killing of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller last May, a horrific reminder that culture wars can turn violent.

In many nations, government is the major threat to religious liberty. But in the United States, we are often our own worst enemy. I worry less about government entanglement with religion and more about Americans tangling with one another over religion.

What’s most disturbing about our religion-fueled fights is the level of intolerance directed at minority religious groups. Earlier this month, for example, mosques in Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif., were vandalized. Last month, similar incidents took place in Oregon and North Carolina. In fact, not a month went by in 2009 without attacks on Islamic places of worship and reports of other hate crimes directed at Muslim Americans.

As bad as that sounds, the most frequent targets of religion-based hate crimes in the U.S. are not Muslims, but Jews. According to the FBI hate-crimes report released last month, 1,013 of the 1,519 reported crimes targeting religious groups or individuals in 2008 — more than 66% — were directed against Jews and Jewish institutions. Tragically, anti-Semitism, one of the oldest and most pernicious problems in our society, persists in 21st century America.

Still, with all of our challenges, the U.S. at the close of 2009 remains the most successful experiment in religious liberty in history. But the fact that conditions for freedom are better here than over there is no cause for year-end celebration. Molehills of intolerance and anger, if left unattended, can grow into mountains of conflict and division.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].