The U.S. Puts 'Moderate' Restrictions on Religious Freedom

A new Pew study reveals complex questions about First Amendment rights.


"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This is the first line of the first amendment in the United States Constitution; religious freedom was clearly a legal priority of the men who drafted the Bill of Rights. Yet, 225 years later, the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project has said the United States places a "moderate" level of restrictions on religious practice compared to the other countries in the world. According to Pew, the U.S. saw a marked increase in hostility toward religion starting in 2009, and this level remained consistent in the following years.

What does this rating actually say about the state of religious freedom in the United States? At first glance, one might assume this is bad news for religious folks in the land of the free, but that may not actually be the case. Especially in comparison with the rest of the world, the United States still has fairly robust protections for spiritual practice.

To get a sense of how the United States stacks up against other countries, take a look at Pew's interactive chart of religious restrictions in the world's 25 most populous countries from 2007 to 2010. If you select "2009" in the list of years at the top of the graph, find the circle representing the U.S., and then select "2010," you'll see a noticeable increase in the country's level of religious hostility. The two axes represent two separate rankings: "government restrictions," which is a tally of legal actions that have limited religious practice in some way; and "social attitudes," which is a measure of negative or violent attitudes that citizens have expressed toward their religious peers.

Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project

In the introduction to the chart, Pew's researchers specifically noted that the U.S. ranked among the least restrictive of the included countries. But when the group isn't limited to the countries with the largest populations, the U.S. doesn't seem to fare as well. America has harsher restrictions than roughly 130 other countries. Places allegedly more free than the U.S. include Serbia, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—not exactly traditional strongholds of democracy.

This is the first sign that there's more to these rankings than one might guess on a first glance. Brian Grim, the lead researcher on this report, explained why it might actually be a good sign that the United States was ranked as more restrictive than some countries with historically weak track records on freedom.

In these kinds of places, a low government restriction score "could point to the fact that there aren't a whole lot of mechanisms in place to regulate anything in society," Grim said. "In some places, there just aren't government policies—the government isn't active."

What's different about the United States, he said, is that there are structures in place to address grievances: If a church community feels like it's experiencing discrimination, it can file a complaint with the Justice Department. Having a "low" level of restrictions is not very meaningful in unstable countries with weak or failed governments.

This isn't the case for all of the countries that got lower rankings than the United States. Grim pointed to Ireland as an example of a strong state with very low levels of government restriction on religious practice. "Even though there's been some favoritism of the Catholic Church, they have a long history of respecting the freedom of religion," he said. Still, Ireland's low ranking is at least partly explained by an accident of geography: Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, which is technically part of the United Kingdom, doesn't count against the country's score, even though it is somewhat religiously motivated and historically tied to Irish independence.

The most interesting point of comparison Grim offered was France. Restrictions against body coverings, like the burkas and niqabs worn by some Muslim women, have raised the country's restrictions rating, placing it just above the United States in the "moderate" category. But, Grim said, some in France believe that the ban on religious garb actually promotes freedom: When the government was debating a ban on headscarves in public schools in 2004, French politician Fadela Amara argued that "the veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women."

This kind of tension also exists in the United States. Grim explained that local government decisions affected the country's rating quite a bit: Countless zoning laws, rulings on property rights, and restrictions on tax dollar use shaped the U.S. score. These weren't always clear-cut cases of religious restriction, either. "Sometimes there's a clear intent to try and keep a religious group out," Grim said. "Sometimes, it's more of a financial decision: [A city government might think], if we let this big church buy property in the center of the city, we're going to lose tax revenue."

Another interesting category of restrictions has to do with taxes: If religious groups receive federal funding or tax-exempt status, both proselytizing and political activity are limited. "If you have tax-exempt status, you're not allowed to talk about politics from the pulpit and endorse a political candidate," Grim pointed out. Groups that get government money to run services like drug rehabilitation aren't allowed to try and convert people as part of those programs either, he said.

Still, the U.S. has its share of cases of discrimination, government and otherwise. Conflicts over the construction of Islamic community centers have reached from New York to Tennessee. This spring, the Supreme Court will hear a set of controversial cases about whether the government can require organizations and businesses to include access to birth control if they provide insurance to their employees. And a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 factored heavily into Pew's most recent rating of the U.S. social hostilities toward religious practice.

Overall, Grim's characterization of Pew's research suggests that the "moderate" restrictions on religion in the U.S. aren't primarily abridgments of freedom; they're part of the complex puzzle of governing a pluralistic political community. The right to free exercise of religion may seem simple in principle, but in practice, it involves figuring out how one group's rights intersect with another's. On balance, that may mean more freedom, not less, is afforded to all.