Religious freedom in U.S. nears extreme challenge

| Wednesday, July 3, 2013, 11:12 p.m.

The melting pot that America's Christian founders guarded never boiled like this.

Their historic wall between government and religion kept the peace among fractured Protestant sects, helping the United States build shared schools and a common culture early in the 1790s.

Now, scholars and faith leaders say, a record jumble of religious groups and nonbelievers is giving the fundamental American principle its biggest hurdle yet, testing school traditions, workplace practices and public policy.

“The United States is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world. I think we are now challenged to live up to this ideal of religious freedom in ways that we never have been in our history,” said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington. “The pressures of dealing with such diversity are just tremendous.”

A 2008 survey found 15 percent of Americans identified as atheist, agnostic or having no religious preference, a figure that nearly doubled from 1990. The portion of adults self-identified as Christian fell from 86 percent to 76 percent in the same period, according to the same American Religious Identification Survey.

In the meantime, the estimated adult Jewish population dipped by about 450,000 to 2.68 million, or 1.2 percent of the country. Muslims climbed from about 0.3 percent to 0.6 percent, or 1.35 million people; Buddhists doubled to a projected 1.9 million.

Observers say those trends are clear in constitutional fights playing out in federal courtrooms, state legislatures and local school boards, where religious and secular activists jostle for their preferences in the public square.

“Religious freedom should be strong. It's one of the bedrocks of this country. Part of my concern is that that will be eroded,” said Bishop David A. Zubik of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

The federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is among the highest-profile examples, infuriating the Roman Catholic Church and social conservatives with a national mandate for birth-control insurance coverage. Western Pennsylvanians point to more regional fights, too, such as a pending federal lawsuit over a Ten Commandments monument at Connellsville Area Junior High School and the voluntary revision of Catholic school curricula.

“It's becoming increasingly difficult to raise moral children in a society that is increasingly more secular,” said Coleen Carignan, a co-founder of Pittsburgh Catholics Against Common Core, a set of state-led government education standards Catholic schools are adopting.

“Catholic teachings supporting pro-life and traditional family values are constantly under attack by the secular media and government institutions. We feel that now more than ever,” she said.

At the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom from Religion Foundation, staff attorney Patrick Elliott sees precisely the opposite problem.

The nonprofit foundation, which sued in an attempt to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the Connellsville school, has filed similar lawsuits across the country.

“I think there is a trend for people in office, to a greater degree than before, to inject religion into government business,” Elliott said. He highlighted state-supported prayer events and an official declaration by Pennsylvania lawmakers to make 2012 the Year of the Bible.

Any such projections of religion from public office are a misuse of public funds and send a signal that nonbelievers are second-class citizens, Elliott said. He said the growing American pluralism might encourage some backlash from lawmakers, much as “under God” first appeared in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” became the nation's motto as a reaction to the “godless communism” of the Cold War.

At the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, staff attorney Sara Rose isn't so sure.

“I think that, over time, we've typically seen less religion brought into the public square by government. I think one of the main reasons for that is religious pluralism,” she said.

In fact, religious declarations by elected officials might be more noticeable “because we do have more respect for other religions than we did in the past,” Rose said.

That shift has touched the Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities in different ways, faith leaders said. At Geneva College, a Christian school in Beaver Falls that's fighting provisions of the Affordable Care Act, school President Kenneth A. Smith detects a wholesale government effort to overhaul religious freedom.

“I have a sense now that the government is trying to redefine that to say your exercise of religion is limited to how you want to worship,” Smith said. He said the message appears as: “Do what you want to do behind the closed doors of a church, but keep your faith outside of the public place.”

Abu Noaman, a public relations secretary for the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, said he doesn't feel that stress, though Muslims see a social tilt toward general spirituality and away from traditional religion.

The birth-control mandate under the federal health care law is not a political flash point in Islamic circles because Muslims tend to marry at a younger age, easing worries about contraception, Noaman said.

At Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill, Rabbi Ron Symons said such legislation should be “as broad as possible to allow pluralism of divergent opinions.”

“I'm concerned that in our 21st-century world, there are people who see someone different and don't embrace that strangeness,” Symons said. “They close off and say, ‘Our way is the right way; their way is the wrong way.' That's not my religious perspective.”

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister at the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said cultural changes present a bigger challenge for Presbyterian churches than do laws.

“With sports, bands and school, there's a ton of other options on Sundays and, in fact, many of them require Sunday participation,” Sorge said. “I think that for us, it becomes not so much a diminishment of religious liberty as an environment of making forced choices.”

Staff writer Bill Zlatos contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676 or

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