Challenges to Our Religious Freedom

People Harmed by Government Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Attempts to Force People in Business to Violate their Faith

  • Sander’s Kosher Bakery in Williamsburg, New York, a neighborhood that is home to the Satmar Hasidic Jewish community, has a dress code that follows Hasidic Jewish modesty requirements: no shorts, bare sleeves or low-cut necklines. Sander’s business is one of seven Hasidic businesses in Williamsburg that has been threatened with up to $75,000 in fines by the New York City Commission on Human Rights because the dress code was considered “discriminatory.” Although dress codes are allowed for restaurants all over New York, such as the Four Seasons, because this restaurant was run by Hasidic Jewish owners, the Commission argued that Sanders’ dress codes were discriminatory because they were an attempt to force Orthodox Jewish beliefs on others.
  • In 2009, Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York forced nurse Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo to perform an “emergency” abortion, in direct violation of her Catholic faith. Doctors and nurses across the country face similar pressure to participate in medical procedures that go against their religious beliefs.

Religious & Ethnic Minority Examples

Story 3: Telsa DeBerry is the pastor of the Opulent Life Church, a Baptist, African-American congregation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. In 2011, the congregation was simply looking to relocate their church, but they were stopped by government discrimination against religion. Unlike businesses and any other organization that wanted to build or relocate, their church – simply because it was a church – was singled out and unfairly targeted. A battle in the federal courts followed, and resources that could have been used for the good of the community were instead used to fight a lengthy and distracting lawsuit in the courts.

Story 4: In public schools across the country, children of minority faiths are all too often penalized when they are absent on the two or so days they take off in observance of their faith’s major holy day. Penalties include missing out on multiple perfect attendance awards and not having an alternate day to take a test if that test date had fallen on their religious holiday. A Hindu child is at a disadvantage if he or she chooses to miss a school day in order to properly observe the high holy days. The freedom to exercise one’s faith without penalty is an inherent right for all Americans and all faiths.

Story 5: In 2009, the Islamic Community of Murfreesboro, TN attempted to build a new mosque to accommodate their growing membership. This sparked intense anti-Islamic opposition and they were subjected to vandalism, arson, and a lengthy court battle. They were accused of trying to overthrow the government and supporting terrorism, and they faced threats to have their mosque seized. In August 2012, a federal court lifted a county prohibition and at last, they were able to open their doors.

Story 6: In 2009, a young Muslim-American college woman was fired from her job at Abercrombie & Fitch after a district manager saw her for the first time. Hani Khan followed her faith’s practice of wearing a hijab, or head scarf.  Although she had been a good employee for the four months she had worked there and had agreed to wear a hijab that matched the company’s colors, she was told that her hijab violated the company’s “look” policy and detracted from its brand. She was discriminated against because of her religious garb.

Attacks on Religion in the Public Square

Story 7: The cross-shaped steel beams, known as the “miracle cross” or “Ground Zero cross” that were recovered in the wreckage of the World Trade Center in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 have long been a symbol of strength and faith for many. Atheists sued to prevent this piece of history from being included in the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. They argued that because the memorial is receiving public funds, this important religious symbol should not be allowed. However, the 2nd Circuit determined there was no ground for the discrimination claim, because “a reasonable observer would view the primary effect of displaying the cross at ground zero, amid hundreds of other (mostly secular) artifacts, to be ensuring historical completeness, not promoting religion.”

Attacks on Religion in Schools

Story 8: In 2012, a North Carolina elementary school girl was forced to remove a line from a poem honoring her grandfather’s service.  In celebration of Veteran’s Day, the children had been asked to recite their poems in the school’s assembly. The school claimed the line “He prayed to God for peace, he prayed to God for strength,” violated the separation of church and state, and she was not allowed to read that part of her poem.

Story 9: Religiously affiliated colleges are in jeopardy of having their accreditation revoked dependent on their internal sexuality policies.  Only accredited schools are eligible to receive federal funds for higher education, including student financial aid and research funding. If religious schools like Notre Dame or Brigham Young University, for instance, do not change their religious teachings to reflect social trends on sexuality and marriage, they could lose their accreditation. Law schools in Canada have already been denied accreditation over similar issues.

Story 10: Administrators at a growing number of state and state-funded universities are targeting religious campus groups by leveraging so-called “all-comer” policies. These policies supposedly require every university-recognized student group to open up its leadership to anyone. While these policies are written to appear neutral and benign, they are tailor-made to target groups that operate according to the tenets of a religious faith, who then can no longer choose its own leaders or ask that its leaders agree to any religious tenet. The University of Iowa attempted to impose such a policy on its clubs in July 2018, deregistering 38 organizations, including the Imam Mahdi Organization, the Latter-day Saint Student Association, the Sikh Awareness Club, and the Chinese Student Christian Fellowship. In August, the university reinstated clubs, but only until litigation against it is decided.

Attacks Against Churches and Ministries

Story 11: In Alabama, a state immigration law makes it a crime to transport, harbor, or rent property to people who are known to be in the country illegally, and it renders any contracts with illegal immigrants null. For some church leaders, this law means that their ministry could face criminal penalties.  The law was vaguely written so that it could mean that any church that serves the needy and the poor, such as giving people rides and inviting them to worship services, is against the law in Alabama. Although advocacy groups came to an agreement with the state to block the most extreme measures in this law, other sections can still be enforced, leaving immigrants, church leaders, and congregants in limbo.

Story 12: Like many other non-profit organizations, the Bronx Household of Faith was seeking to rent space from public schools on the weekends when they were vacant. It would provide a much-needed venue for the church to worship and minister to its community. It also provided much-needed revenue to the financially-strapped public school. Any non-profit group can rent space, but it is legally acceptable to discriminate against churches solely based on their religious nature, according to Bronx Household of Faith v. NYC Board of Education.

Story 13: Texas pastor Rick Barr was targeted by the City of Sinton, Texas and prevented by a discriminatory zoning ordinance from operating a halfway house to help rehabilitate low-level offenders recently released from prison. After a ten-year battle, the Texas Supreme Court ruled against the government’s anti-religious discrimination and found that the city ordinance violated Barr’s religious freedom. At long last, Barr was able to open the doors of his halfway house again and serve his community.

Examples of Conscientious Objection to Same-Sex Weddings

Story 14: A long-time customer and friend of florist Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Washington State, sued her because she could not in good conscience use her creative skills to provide flowers for his same-sex wedding ceremony. While she often provided flowers for him, she felt that by participating in his wedding ceremony she would be complicit in an act that goes against her faith. She was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and by the Washington state attorney general has filed for unlawful discrimination, even though she served and employed people who identify as gay and numerous other florists are willing to do the work. The Supreme Court returned her case to Washington’s Supreme Court to be decided based on the legal developments of the Masterpiece Cakeshop decision.

This resource is part of the Religious Freedom topic.

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