The Magazine

Unfree to Be .  .  .

Religious liberty and human rights.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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They contend instead that religious conflicts, including (and perhaps especially) religious persecution, arise out of efforts by governments and societies to regulate individual religious preferences. This can include government policies that explicitly favor a majority religion, or “cartel” of officially approved religions, as well as government acquiescence in societal prejudices against minority religions, such as the pervasive anti-Semitism in Europe that generated violence against Jews long before Hitler made it official policy.

“[W]e propose that the higher the degree to which governments and societies ensure religious freedoms for all, the less violent persecution and conflict along religious lines there will be,” Grim/Finke write. They add:

We propose that diverse religions can coexist in the same geographic space without conflict. But when the restrictions on religion become heavy and deny the religious freedoms of some or all, violent religious persecution and broader social conflict are likely.

Grim/Finke argue that religious conflict is pervasive throughout the world because nearly all countries in the world (86 percent by their reckoning) restrict or regulate religion in some fashion and thus generate religious violence, even though their constitutions typically guarantee religious freedom. The regimes include that of China, where members of unapproved religions are regularly imprisoned; that of Russia, where Jehovah’s Witnesses and other adherents of nontraditional faiths complain that police are slow to respond to vandalism of their property and disruption of their worship services; and those of Western Europe, where anti-cult movements encourage discrimination against members of so-called new religions. Indeed, “start-up costs” for a new religion, such as registering with the government and finding a landlord willing to rent it worship space, can be daunting enough to exact social costs: a “decline in the supply of religious options .  .  . meaning less religious plurality and choice,” Grim/Finke write.

Even the United States, with its strong First Amendment protections for religion, is not immune from official intrusions upon religious liberty, Grim/Finke insist. They cite the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division of Oregon, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith upholding a denial of state unemployment benefits on misconduct grounds to two men fired from their jobs as counselors at a drug rehabilitation clinic for using peyote in a Native American Church ritual. Congress attempted to nullify the Smith ruling with the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993, but in 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that RFRA was unconstitutional, at least to the extent that it applied to the actions of state and local governments. Furthermore, Grim/Finke point out, the Smith ruling had a chilling effect on subsequent First Amendment litigation. Many more plaintiffs lost their cases, and many more felt reluctant to take their claims to court in the first place. Members of minority religions suffered the most, especially with respect to zoning disputes involving their places of worship.

Grim/Finke also point to persistent reports of religiously motivated hate crimes in all 50 states: assaults, church-burnings, synagogue defacements. Quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, Grim/Finke decry what they describe as a growing Supreme Court-blessed “tyranny of the majority” in America regarding toleration of the beliefs and practices of minority religions.

Grim/Finke devote much of their book to case studies of countries—China, Japan, India, Brazil, Nigeria, and others—whose statistics support their correlation of incidences of religious conflict with those countries’ restrictions or lack of restrictions on religion. The governments involved offer an array of justifications for the restraints: national security, decreasing interfaith tension, nation-building (as in Kemalist Turkey), maintaining strict secularism in public life (the rationale for the 2004 French ban on the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols by students in public schools), and in the case of the Supreme Court in the Smith decision, upholding the validity of a religiously neutral state law—classifying the mescaline in peyote as an illegal drug—that applied equally to all residents of Oregon. Then Grim/Finke turn their attention to the elephant in the religious room, the same elephant that caught Samuel Huntington’s attention: Islam.