What’s the biggest threat to religious freedom in America today?

Intolerance, partisan tensions and growing anxiety all create challenges for faith communities, according to religion and policy experts.

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Religion and policy experts agree it’s grown harder in recent years for people of faith in the U.S. to live out their beliefs. But they have different ideas about which ongoing threat to religious freedom should be seen as most serious.

Tevi Troy, who served as the White House Jewish liaison under President George W. Bush, believes the biggest problem facing American faith communities is intolerance.

Across the country, people have become obsessed with telling each other how to live, he said during an April 22 panel discussion hosted by Religion News Association.

“We have to have a little more respect for people of different views,” he said.

The Rev. Joshua DuBois, who was one of Troy’s co-panelists, offered a similar warning, although he directed it at a more specific group of people.

He thinks faith leaders who supported President Donald Trump in the hopes of securing new religious freedom protections need to atone for Trump’s divisive approach to leadership and rebuild trust within their communities.

In this Oct. 29, 2018, file photo, a makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in the aftermath of a deadly shooting in Pittsburgh. | Matt Rourke, Associated Press

“The voices who fight for religious liberty don’t have any credibility anymore. I think it will take years to rebuild that,” said the Rev. DuBois, who worked on faith-related policy and served as a spiritual adviser to the president during the Obama administration.

The Rev. Johnnie Moore, who worked with the Trump administration, pushed back on this claim during the panel. However, he did agree that rising partisan tensions have put religious freedom at risk.

“My greatest concern is politics,” he said, noting that religious liberty, as a concept, has become less popular as bipartisan cooperation has become more rare.

The situation has gotten so out of hand that some government officials felt justified in forcing churches to shut down during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Rev. Moore added.

“What we’ve seen ... is the vast overreach of certain states and it ought to cause all of us alarm,” he said.

Melissa Rogers, the current executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, also drew people’s attention to the events of the past year, highlighting moments in which churches or religious Americans were attacked.

In the U.S. today, many people don’t feel comfortable wearing religious symbols or sitting in a house of worship, and that should be heartbreaking for everyone, she said.

“Some people in the U.S. really feel like they are unable to practice their faith without fear for their physical safety. They can’t walk down the street wearing a yalmulke or turban without fear that somebody will attack them,” Rogers said.

She and other officials in the Biden administration plan to do what they can to reduce this fear and boost religious freedom more broadly, she added. Already, they’re working on increasing access to nonprofit security grants and hosting listening sessions with persecuted people of faith.

“I am convinced that if every fair-minded American could sit and listen to someone who feels they cannot practice their faith without fear then they would be on fire to change this,” Rogers said.


Fresh off the press

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan governmental advisory group that tracks religious persecution around the world, released its 2021 annual report this week. I wrote about what the commission said about COVID-19, Chinese surveillance technology and President Joe Biden’s first three months in office.

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments in a case that could redefine the relationship between state officials, nonprofit organizations and charitable donors. My latest story takes a look at the legal precedents involved. Although it’s not directly linked to religion, the case could hold consequences for charities that work on religious freedom and other faith-related causes, including abortion rights and immigration policy, as my article noted.


Term of the week: Morality clause

Many religious business owners include a morality clause in their employment contracts. They require workers to abide by strict ethical standards, such as a prohibition on pre-marital sex.

Employees who have agreed to a morality clause can get fired for violating their bosses’ ethical expectations even if they’re otherwise good at their job. In some cases, such firings are controversial, since letting someone go for getting pregnant or being gay would, in other contexts, be an obvious violation of federal employment anti-discrimination law.

In light of a morality clause-related lawsuit filed against Dave Ramsey, who is best known for doling out faith-based financial advice, my colleague Jennifer Graham took a look at what’s at stake in efforts to invalidate morality clauses.


What I’m reading

It’s odd to say, but getting pregnant and having a baby made me think about infertility more than ever before. My heart breaks for women and couples who try to conceive but can’t, especially for those who don’t hear much from religious leaders about their plight. I really appreciated Kaya Oakes’ recent piece for the Catholic magazine America about how the women of the Bible helped her grapple with infertility. “Women who don’t have children — and are not (nuns) — also have many gifts to give the church and the world,” she writes.


Odds and ends

If you’re interested in learning more about last week’s Religion News Association conference, check out my Twitter threads on each of the four panel discussions. Speakers addressed faith-based political activism, what it’s like to be a religious adviser to the White House, faith groups’ response to COVID-19 vaccination and the relationship between religion and comedy.

I can’t imagine fasting from sunrise to sundown, as Muslims do during the month of Ramadan, let alone doing so while playing in multiple professional basketball games each week. Kyrie Irving, a Brooklyn Nets star who is participating in Ramadan this year, recently told reporters that playing while fasting has been “an adjustment.”