Restrictions on religion rise across the globe, including in the U.S.

Published: Thursday, Sept. 20 2012 9:00 a.m. MDT

Serbian Orthodox Church in Jackson, California. Saturday, April 25, 2009.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

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Threats to religious liberty around the world increased markedly from mid-2009 to mid-2010 as more countries imposed severe restrictions on religion and those with historically low restrictions, such as the United States, moved to moderate levels, a new study found.

The annual survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found 75 percent of the world's population lived in countries where religious restrictions were high in 2010, compared to 70 percent the year before and 68 percent in 2007, when Pew reported its first global survey on religious restrictions.

"That represents hundreds of millions of people who weren't living under those conditions the year before," said Brian Grim, senior researcher for the study, "Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion," released Thursday.

Unlike during the previous three years of the study, restrictions on religious practice increased across the globe and affected almost all faiths in 2009-10, from Christians and Muslims to more obscure beliefs that are becoming increasingly popular.

"(Religious restrictions) didn't just rise in some parts (of the world) and pull the rest of the world up, but in each of the major regions," Grim said. "The rising tide also affected not just countries where hostilities were already high, but even those that began the period with lower levels, such as Switzerland and the United States."

In the U.S., incidents of social harassment and government restriction of religion rose between 2009 and 2010, the first time both indexes increased in the same year for the U.S. since Pew researchers began monitoring religious restrictions in mid-2006.

Acts of religious terrorism — such as the November 2009 shooting rampage that left 13 people dead at Fort Hood, Texas, or the infamous underwear bomber — were a key factor in the U.S. Social Hostilities Index, which rose from 2.0 as of mid-2009 to 3.4 as of mid-2010. The score moved the U.S. from the lower end of the moderate range of hostilities to the upper end of that range.

The nation's score on the Government Restrictions Index increased from 1.6 in mid-2009 to 2.7 in mid-2010, moving the U.S. from the low category to the moderate category for the first time in the four years studied.

The restrictions were primarily on the local and state level and ranged from zoning enforcement against construction or expansion of a religious property to prohibiting religious symbols or attire in prisons.

Grim couldn't predict whether the current legal battle over enforcement of the federal Affordable Care Act's contraception provisions would count under government restrictions since a court hasn't ruled in the cases filed against the government.

Asked whether the report provides ammo to religious liberty advocates who say religious freedom in America is under unprecedented attack, Grim explained that the study considers just four years, and over time the government restrictions may be resolved in favor of religion.

"One unique aspect of the United States is that there are safeguards in place to address problems as they come up," he said, referring to federal intervention and avenues for appealing government decisions.

Thomas Farr, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, said the "trajectory of religious freedom in the United States is downward."

"I am not surprised the U.S. scores are deteriorating. They will go down further when the actions of the Obama administration are taken into full account."

On a global scale, Farr, a former U.S. diplomat and now director of the Berkley Center's program on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy and the Project on Religious Freedom, said the Pew report confirms "there is a crisis of religious liberty that is going from very bad to worse."

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