by Jorge Gomez and Lauren Moses • 8 min read
The Pew Research Center recently released a report examining the state of religion and religious freedom across 198 countries and territories. Its findings are alarming, revealing a steady rise in government restrictions involving religion since 2007 and reaching an all-time high in recent years.
For Americans, it’s tempting to look at this data and think that heinous religious restrictions only occur in tyrannical regimes such as North Korea, China or Cuba.
But more frequently than ever before, we’re witnessing that even America—the Land of the Free, a nation built on the promise of religious liberty for all—isn’t immune to the ills of religious oppression.
Pew’s report is a warning for every American; a wake-up call not to live in fear of tyranny, but to instead defend the bedrock of all liberties: religious freedom.
Pew’s latest findings (for the year 2019) reveal a disturbing trend, documenting the highest levels of government harassment of religious groups and interference in worship in over a decade:
“In total, 180 countries—91% of all countries in the study—had at least one instance, at some level, of government harassment [verbal to physical violence] against religious groups, compared with 175 countries in 2018. In 163 countries (82%), government authorities interfered in worship in ways such as prohibiting certain religious practices, withholding access to places of worship or denying permits for religious activities or buildings. In 2018, 156 countries interfered in worship in any of these ways.”
It’s true that in America we haven’t yet seen the same level of restrictions, harassment or physical violence people of faith experience in other countries. But it’s nearly impossible to ignore some of the shocking parallels that surfaced in recent years.
Throughout 2020 and into 2021, the COVID-19 crisis led to a constitutional crisis, as the government abused its power to restrict religious activity to a point never seen in our nation’s history. Recall how state officials treated churches as second-class and “nonessential,” threatened pastors with arrest, and harassed congregants for safely gathering for in-person worship.
While government officials attempted to instill fear into America’s religious communities, many Americans stood their ground, taking the battle for their rights into the courtroom. And in a majority of cases, they emerged victorious.
One example is First Liberty’s historic, precedent-setting victory on behalf of On Fire Christian Church just before Easter 2020, what we call the “legal shot heard ‘round the country.” This important win was the first major opinion leading the way to ensure that religious freedom was not unconstitutionally “suspended” in a pandemic. It was the first of many victories we secured during this unprecedented crisis.
Here’s the lesson for us: Though we hear about reports of rising hostility at home or abroad, America’s Constitution still stands as a bulwark protecting our rights, and there’s immense hope that religious freedom can triumph.
For the first time, Pew reported on the use of online restrictions and new or advanced technologies such as surveillance cameras, facial recognition technology or biometric data to restrict or surveil religious groups. The findings show:
“In total, 28 countries and territories (14% of all 198 in the study) had some type of online governmental restriction in 2019 that was related to religion.”
Government use of technology to monitor or harass religious groups might appear too dystopian. Still, there’s increasing evidence suggesting that religious Americans are being censored, attacked or marginalized in the digital world.
A similar Pew Research study published earlier this year indicates that nearly one in five Americans who experienced online harassment believe it was because of their religion.
Additionally, reports continue to surface claiming that social media giants are misleading the public about diversity of opinion on their platforms. We’ve seen the opposite of a free forum for diverse expression: Big Tech selectively applying their standards to censor conservative and religious speech.
First Liberty is fighting on this critical legal battlefront to protect religious freedom online. Our legal team is representing The Babylon Bee and Not the Bee, two Christian satirical news websites that have faced increasing censorship and “shadow banning” on social media.
Pew’s research may suggest that religious repression isn’t too far away from America’s shores, especially given the rising pattern of attacks against people of faith worldwide.
But instead of cowering, Americans must confront this rising hostility with boldness, courage and truth.
It’s in the dark times and in the face of persecution that people of faith most need to stand strong for freedom; it’s when we most need to uphold the eternal truths and the God-given rights protected by the Constitution.
The U.S. has stood as a symbol of freedom, a beacon of liberty and a safe haven to the religiously oppressed for over two centuries. In the face of a global wave of religious hostility, we’d be wise to heed the warning signs that no nation is immune to tyranny. That’s why we must be bold and protect religious liberty, the foundational freedom that’s made our country exceptional since its founding.