PLANO, Texas – The number of attacks on religious liberty is growing in the United States. That's the finding from researchers at the First Liberty Institute, a Texas-based, non-profit legal group fighting for religious rights in America.
Every year, the institute publishes a survey compiling all the cases it's found on religious liberty attacks.
"This year's survey represents a 15 percent increase in just the past year. And an alarming 133 percent increase in the last five years," General Counsel Jeremy Dys said.
Dys cited a 418-page publication entitled, "Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America," which documents 1,400 attacks on religious liberty this year. He called it the most comprehensive compilation of its kind.
First Liberty Institute CEO Kelly Shackelford told reporters about the kinds of cases that come across the institute's doorstep.
Giovanni Rubeo, a nine-year-old Floridian was told, along with his classmates, they could bring any book to school for free reading time. But when he brought his Bible, he got in trouble with his Ft. Lauderdale school. First Liberty took up the case and won.
The legal group began distributing its "Undeniable" survey to meet a challenge, issued more than a dozen years ago, by Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John Cornyn, R-Tx. They'd held a hearing in which a number of Americans testified about hostilities toward religious freedom. At the time, naysayers tried to assure the senators these were just isolated incidents.
Far from Isolated Incidents
Testimonies by First Liberty clients spawned an inquiry from the senators.
"We've heard this objection, that these are just isolated incidents. Is that true?" they wrote. The legal group went to work on its first survey.
"Even we were shocked by how pervasive the issue was," Shackelford recalled. "This was in every community of every state in the country, these issues, these problems, these attacks on religious freedom."
From that point on, First Liberty began to publish the survey annually as a service to the country. Today, after thousands of documented attacks on religious liberty, Shackelford hears the same thing.
"The most common response I get when I speak around the country is 'I had no idea,'" he said.
President Trump's Getting a Copy
"'Undeniable', as we speak, is being delivered to President Trump, Vice President Pence and every member of Congress," Dys said.
Liberty Institute Senior Counsel Justin Butterfield is editor-in-chief of "Undeniable." He talked about one case he's working on personally: a Dallas-area Orthodox Jewish congregation – forbidden to drive on the Sabbath – walks to their synagogue, which is in their rabbi's home.
A neighbor sued Congregation Toras Chaim and the congregation won. But three weeks later, the city of Dallas sued and the case continues.
"It's a situation that is very scary for the members of the community there because if they're prohibited from practicing their faith there, they will have to pick up and move," Butterfield explained.
Fired for Sticking to Her Beliefs
Alexia Palma was a health educator for low-income patients at a Houston inner-city clinic. Her strict Catholic stance against birth control cost her that job. For about a year and a half, she'd been allowed to show a video about birth control – rather than talk about the subject herself – in a course on motherhood.
But new management gave her an ultimatum.
"I needed to put my religious beliefs aside if I wanted to continue being a health educator there," she said, despite the fact that supplying information about birth control constituted less than two percent of her job. A co-worker offered to teach about birth control in Palma's place if management insisted a video wasn't good enough.
"I was really devastated. I really loved my job and my patients," she said. "I never thought one day I would be asked to violate my religious beliefs to keep my job."
Palma was fired, but with the institute's help, she filed a lawsuit and won a large settlement. Though prohibited from discussing the amount of the settlement, Dys says it left her "rather happy."
Shackelford explained how pervasive attacks on religious liberty are these days.
He mentioned just a few cases.
"Coach Joe Kennedy, who was fired for going to a knee to give a prayer after the football game. That's a school case. But then we also had the (Mary Anne) Sause case where a woman was actually told by police that she was not allowed to pray in her own home."
He spoke about the Bladensburg Veterans Memorial outside of Washington D.C, a case involving a large stone cross dominating a memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland.
"The issue there is whether they're going to tear down a veterans' memorial that's been up for over 90 years," he said.
But the 1,400 cases surveyed in "Undeniable" don't by any means represent all the attacks on religious rights in the U.S.
If People Will Fight Back, They'll Likely Win
"It's just the tip of the iceberg because what's published is really a fraction of what's actually happening," he continued. "Most people just take it. They don't call. They don't know there's a place they can get help. They think they don't have enough money to hire a legal team," Shackelford said.
If people will fight back, they'll usually win. Shackelford said the First Liberty Institute has won way more than 90 percent of the cases it's taken on over the past 17 years. Still, the number of attacks on religious liberty is growing.
"We're really in the middle of the battle," he said, and a great deal rides on its outcome.
"We're going to determine whether we remain the United States of America that was founded on religious freedom," Shakelford concluded.