Compared to other countries, U.S. restrictions on religion are moderate, says Pew report

Two hundred twenty-two years ago, our forefathers declared “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” They placed it in such high esteem that it became the first line of our nation’s Bill of Rights; clearly, religious freedom is a basis of our country. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, the United States places “moderate” level of restrictions on religious practice compared to the other countries in the world. An article in The Atlantic takes a look at the Pew report:

According to Pew, the U.S. saw a marked increase in hostility toward religion starting in 2009, and this level remained consistent in the following years… To get a sense of how the United States stacks up against other countries, take a look at Pew’s interactive chart of religious restrictions in the world’s 25 most populous countries from 2007 to 2010. If you select “2009” in the list of years at the top of the graph, find the circle representing the U.S., and then select “2010,” you’ll see a noticeable increase in the country’s level of religious hostility. The two axes represent two separate rankings: “government restrictions,” which is a tally of legal actions that have limited religious practice in some way; and “social attitudes,” which is a measure of negative or violent attitudes that citizens have expressed toward their religious peers.[1]

According to the model and research, between 2009 and 2010, there were an increased number of incidents in which religious groups were unable to carry out their religious practices unabridged. Some of these incidents involved individuals who were prohibited from wearing certain religious symbols or attire, such as a Sikh man who was forced to trim his beard in prison against his religious beliefs. Other religious groups faced difficulties obtaining legal permission (such as zoning permits) to create religious buildings (such as those of worship or religious educations). According to the Pew research,

 …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.”[2]

…There’s more to these rankings than one might guess on a first glance. Brian Grim, the lead researcher on this report, explained why it might actually be a good sign that the United States was ranked as more restrictive than some countries with historically weak track records on freedom.

In these kinds of places, a low government restriction score “could point to the fact that there aren’t a whole lot of mechanisms in place to regulate anything in society,” Grim said. “In some places, there just aren’t government policies—the government isn’t active.”

What’s different about the United States, he said, is that there are structures in place to address grievances: If a church community feels like it’s experiencing discrimination, it can file a complaint with the Justice Department. Having a “low” level of restrictions is not very meaningful in unstable countries with weak or failed governments…

Of course, this prompts a whole different argument–one considering the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson was one of the biggest proponents of a secular democracy, and sometimes I question if he would be ashamed or enthralled by the current semi-permeability of the division. Assuredly, as mentioned above, there are times in which the interaction in critical to societal functioning, but at other times, it gives the government a certain undue power over the religious system that almost seems to violate the first amendment.  For example,, the filing of complaints, as mentioned above, or the tax exemptions given to religious institutions.

Still, the U.S. has its share of cases of discrimination, government and otherwise. Conflicts over the construction of Islamic community centers have reached from New York to Tennessee. This spring, the Supreme Court will hear a set of controversial cases about whether the government can require organizations and businesses to include access to birth control if they provide insurance to their employees. And a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 factored heavily into Pew’s most recent rating of the U.S. social hostilities toward religious practice.

I was surprised by the extent to which these occurrences affected the rating; these same events have been persistent since 2001 for certain, and probably before that even, when racial tensions were high. Almost immediately after the successful integration of African-Americans into our culture, there was a certain feeling of hostility due to other immigrants, of other races, most notably the Japanese and Middle Easterners, all of which began far before 2001.

I suppose the conclusion I would draw, then, from the Pew Research Data, is that there was a certain decrease in racial and religious tensions from about 2006-2009, and therefore, the number of incidents were said to increase There is no doubt in my mind, however, that post-2001, there was not a severe increase in social stigmatization.

Overall, Grim’s characterization of Pew’s research suggests that the “moderate” restrictions on religion in the U.S. aren’t primarily abridgments of freedom; they’re part of the complex puzzle of governing a pluralistic political community. The right to free exercise of religion may seem simple in principle, but in practice, it involves figuring out how one group’s rights intersect with another’s. On balance, that may mean more freedom, not less, is afforded to all.[3]