Last Tuesday, a bipartisan group of more than 120 legislators in nine states announced the formation of the nation’s first state religious freedom caucuses.
The announcement comes amid increasing evidence that social hostility and government restrictions against religion are on the rise in the United States, an observation underscored by a study released last month by the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life. The study’s data add to a growing body of evidence that the worst threats to religious freedom are no longer confined to attacks on Americans’ rights to pray at public events or to display religious symbols in the courthouse or town square.
The Pew study aptly places many of today’s rising threats in the category of “social hostility” to religion. Hostile, highly vocal groups and individuals are increasingly working to deny clear constitutional rights to certain faith communities.
Such a group in the Rocky Mountain West banded together to block a county permitting process for the expansion of a private, religious school primarily because the group was hostile to that faith community’s beliefs. The now notorious German attacks against circumcision—which would in practice ban a core ancient rite of both Judaism and Islam—were prefigured last year by attempts by Northern California activists to criminalize circumcision.
Today’s threats to religious freedom are more dangerous than past threats because they are often driven by government itself. For example, some overreaching state and federal officials have started to impose unprecedented mandates that force religious Americans into the untenable position of having to choose between violating the law and violating their rights of conscience and religious freedoms.
Religious pharmacists in Illinois and Washington recently won court rulings vindicating their rights of conscience against such mandates—but the administrations in both states are appealing. Over 100 plaintiffs from multiple faith communities are still seeking relief in the courts from the federal “preventive services” mandate that forces religious employers to pay for abortion-inducing drugs and similar products and services that violate their religious freedom and rights of conscience.
Lawmakers have a key role in addressing threats to religious freedom at the earliest stages. Expensive and demoralizing litigation should not be the only recourse for vindicating core constitutional rights.
Legislatures in Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, and Tennessee now have working groups of lawmakers focused on crafting clear protections for America’s remarkable religious freedoms—and for taking the initiative to stop attacks on those freedoms. By the end of 2013, most if not all of the 50 states will have similar caucuses.
Whether they are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or some other faith, religion is so close to the core of millions of Americans’ identity that even unintentional attacks on religious freedom should be repelled. The 120 legislators of both major parties who formed the nation’s first state religious freedom caucuses are creating a model for doing so in a robust, civil, and bipartisan manner.
Tim Schultz serves as state legislative policy director for the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom Program (www.religiousfreedom.org).