The Pew Forum’s annual report on religious freedom is out, and for the first time in its four-year history, it reports a rising tide of religious restrictions in the United States. This increase has moved the U.S., again for the first time, from Pew’s “low” to “moderate” category of restrictions.
Note especially that these are restrictions imposed specifically by government bodies, and that the report is on the state of affairs two years ago, well before recent, prominent religious restrictions (like the administration’s extraordinary argument in Hosanna Tabor and promulgation of the HHS mandate) hit the headlines:
Individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols, including beards, in some judicial settings or in prisons, penitentiaries or other correctional facilities. For instance, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that it was pursuing a lawsuit in federal court against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and various California officials on behalf of a Sikh prison inmate who, in March 2010, had been ordered to trim his facial hair in violation of his religious beliefs. [ . . . ]
In May 2010, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court ruling that the Boulder County Commissioners had discriminated against the Rocky Mountain Christian Church by denying it permits to expand its school and worship facilities even though the commissioners had issued permits to a nearby secular school for a similar expansion. . . . The Justice Department — in a report marking the 10th anniversary of the passage of RLUIPA — noted that 31 of its 51 land-use investigations from 2000-2010 involved Christian groups; most of the remaining 20 investigations involved religious minorities, including Muslims (seven investigations), Jews (six), Buddhists (three) and Hindus (one).
They also cite the Sharia-law fears (which I wrote against in an article for National Review):
From mid-2009 to mid-2010, at least one state sought to restrict the application of Islamic or sharia law. In the spring of 2010, Oklahoma legislators proposed an amendment to the state constitution that would have banned state courts from considering sharia law or international law in their decisions. (The constitutional change was later approved in a statewide vote, but a federal appeals court struck down the amendment in January 2012, saying it violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.)
A particularly embarrassing episode concerns a prisoner who wasn’t accommodated in making a religious conversion:
And, for the first time, one of the primary sources used in this study reported that some level of government in the U.S. had imposed limits on conversion. A report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief mentions an incident at the Southport Correctional Facility, an ultra-maximum security prison near Elmira, N.Y., in which a prisoner was denied the right to change his religious designation to Muslim. The inmate complained that he could not participate in Ramadan observances without an official change to his religious designation in the New York Department of Correctional Services’ records.
It should be noted that none of these examples implicate the Obama administration, and one (sharia law) implicates the conservative movement. That said, things will not look good for the president in Pew’s forthcoming reports. Catholic objections to paying for contraceptives are no less significant than, say, a Sikh’s objection to shaving his beard. In issuing the HHS mandate requiring religious entities to pay for abortifacients and contraceptives, the current administration has decided to ride at the crest of this new wave of religious restrictions.
Many commentators say complaints on new religious restrictions are exaggerated, but this latest report from Pew suggests that the danger is real and rising.