Faith leaders say threats to religious liberty in the United States and abroad are increasing.
While many abuses abroad are overt actions of violence against minority religions, the domestic threats are at times more subtle, relying on court rulings and lawmaking to balance the rights of free speech and the exercise of religion against claims of discrimination and equal rights.
The following list highlights prominent cases in which religious freedom is a central issue.
Some 37 lawsuits have been filed by for-profit companies against the federal government over a requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers provide contraceptive coverage through company health care plans. The most high-profile case involves Hobby Lobby, a national craft store chain whose owners say the birth control mandate would require them to provide abortifacients in violation of their Christian beliefs.
The government contends that for-profit corporations, unlike a church, do not have religious freedom rights and exempting them from government requirements would effectively allow the owners to impose their religious beliefs on employees. Meanwhile, the company owners argue that making money doesn't disqualify someone from exercising their religious beliefs and that they shouldn't have to deny their faith to make a living.
Conflicting rulings from the circuit courts have legal experts predicting it is sure to reach the Supreme Court, possibly in the next year.
Another 30 lawsuits have been filed over the contraception mandate by nonprofits, such as religious affiliated schools, hospitals and charities. The nonprofits argue that an accommodation offered by the federal government to use a third party to administer the contraception benefit is an accounting trick that doesn't clear their conscience of having a role in providing birth control to someone. The religious employers say anything short of a full exemption is a violation of their religious freedom.
But some legal experts say the accommodation puts enough distance between the birth control and the employer that the plaintiffs may have a tough time proving the mandate places a burden on their religious freedom.
Nearly 180 U.S. cities have passed ordinances that include sexual orientation among categories protected against discrimination. Some ordinances have been praised for eliminating bias against lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people, while other ordinances have been blasted for targeting people of faith who believe same-sex relations are sinful.
The most far-reaching ordinance was passed this month in San Antonio, where appointees and members of city boards and commissions are prevented from engaging in bias “by word or deed.” The Texas attorney general claims the ordinance violates free speech rights of city officials or anyone doing business with the city and predicted it would be challenged in court.
Many local and state laws banning discrimination based on sexual orientation have resulted in some business owners coming under fire because their religious beliefs prohibited them from serving same-sex clients. A recent case garnering publicity was a bakery in Oregon that ended up shutting down over the controversy, which included an investigation by the state. Another high-profile case involved a photographer in New Mexico who violated that state's Human Rights Act by declining to shoot a lesbian commitment ceremony.
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, 85 percent of Americans support the right of the photographer to say no.
In addition to private businesses, religious affiliated service providers have run afoul of state equal rights laws. Catholic charities have shuttered their adoption and foster care services in several states because their beliefs prevent them from placing children with same-sex couples, which disqualifies the faith-based agencies from government funding.
A bill before Congress would bar federal funding to adoption services that do not place children with gay couples. But another legislative proposal before Michigan lawmakers would exempt faith-based adoption agencies from the state's anti-discrimination laws, so they could continue to provide services without violating their conscience or losing public funding.
Another proposal before the Michigan Legislature would let health workers and businesses, such as a pharmacy, object to providing contraception or other medical services on moral grounds.
A pharmacy in Olympia, Wash., successfully sued the state over a law that would have required druggists to dispense emergency contraception. The pharmacy owner and two pharmacists said dispensing the contraceptive Plan B violated their constitutional rights to freedom of religion because such drugs are tantamount to abortion.
A federal district judge agreed the law was unconstitutionally applied by allowing exemptions for business but not religious reasons. The state has appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments over prayers at government meetings. The case will give some long-awaited guidance on the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which prohibits government from establishing or favoring a religion.
The case before the high court concerns the city of Greece, N.Y., where two residents sued claiming the City Council violated the First Amendment because prayers that opened its meetings were overwhelmingly Christian, even though other faiths were allowed the opportunity to pray.
Another legal battle with implications for local government entities across the country involves a high school commencement ceremony held in a local church in Wisconsin. A secularist group sued the school district claiming that renting church property violated the constitutional separation of church and state. The Elmbrook School District said it chose the church because it was affordable and had the space to accommodate the secular ceremony. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiffs, ruling the religious symbols in the church created a risk that the government was endorsing Christianity.
One scholar wrote that if the U.S. Supreme Court takes on the appeal its ruling would have sweeping implications for local government entities that rent or visit the property owned by a religious organization for any purpose, ranging from field trips to polling places.
Public schools have long been a battleground over religious freedom. One of the latest disputes is in Massachusetts, where an anonymous atheist family sued the school district over the daily recitation of The Pledge of Allegiance, in particular the phrase "under God," which was added to the pledge in 1954.
While past lawsuits over the pledge have been claims that it violates the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, this latest case alleges the daily recitation violates the state's equal rights act by casting atheists as unpatriotic second-class citizens. It's an approach that has been successful in challenging traditional marriage statutes in the other states.
Supporters of the pledge, who argue the term "under God" is not a religious declaration but instead a political philosophy, fear if the Massachusetts Supreme Court rules against the pledge it will trigger similar lawsuits in other states.
Despite expectations that the Arab Spring uprisings would lead to religious freedoms, a Pew Research Center study found just the opposite has occurred. In 2011, the Middle East and North Africa experienced pronounced increases in social hostilities involving religion, while government restrictions on religion remained exceptionally high.
The ongoing news accounts of religious persecution and sectarian violence in the region confirm that religious freedom must first be established before security and economic stability can take hold, said Tom Farr, a former American diplomat who is now director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University.
"If you want democracy to work, you have to move first toward religious freedom. That would mean freedom for all religious groups," Farr said. "Right now, democracy at the moment (in the region) would be no more liberating than despotism."
The trend of governments banning religious clothing migrated from Europe to Canada this year.
The Quebec government has proposed a ban on religious clothing and symbols worn by public employees. All members of the public would be required to uncover their faces when dealing with the local government, under the proposed Charter of Quebec Values.
The ruling Parti Quebecois says the charter is intended to promote a cohesive and secular society. But critics have blasted it as unconstitutional and xenophobic. Observers say the charter faces significant legal and political challenges to become provincial law.