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An Inconvenient Truth: More Religious Freedom Means Less Religious Conflict

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Many Americans would be happy to wake up tomorrow, and discover an Islamic center was not going to be built near Ground Zero and that they would not have to hear of another pastor planning to burn Qurans.

The decisions would be popular, justified in part by a desire to preserve public order and to reduce potential violence.

But if they were coerced they also would be dangerous.

Take away religious freedoms and violent religious persecution and conflict are likely to increase, Brian Grim of the Pew Research Center and Roger Finke of Pennsylvania State University point out in their upcoming book from Cambridge University Press, The Price of Freedom Denied.

In analyzing U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Reports for 143 countries outside the United States with a population of at least 2 million, researchers found 86 percent of the nations have documented cases of people being physically abused or displaced from their homes because of religious persecution.

The more severe the levels of religious restriction, the greater the risk of violent persecution, the authors found. Forty-four percent of governments interfering with the right to worship had more than 200 cases of violent religious persecution; only 9 percent of countries with freedom of worship had similar rates of abuse.

The price of freedom, religious liberty scholars suggest, sometimes requires allowing the building of a mosque near the spot where terrorists motivated by Islam committed mass murder or permitting the public burning of holy books.

"We don't have a law against offending anyone's sensibilities," said political scientist Anthony Gill of the University of Washington. "This is just the messiness of democracy."

It could happen here

The United States is no exception to either religious discrimination or the temptation to withhold religious freedoms.

In their book, Grim and Finke provide several examples why religious freedoms cannot be taken for granted here. Consider the following:

- Judicial rulings such as a 1990 Supreme Court decision making it easier for governments to restrict religion can have a major impact. The percentage of favorable decisions on First Amendment cases involving religion dropped from 40 percent to 28 percent in the period between the decision and the passage in 1993 of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The number of free exercise claims also dropped dramatically, from 7.1 cases initiated a month to 3.2 cases a month after the ruling.

-Hate crimes motivated by a religious bias have been reported to the FBI in nearly all 50 states for every year in the 21st century. In 2006, there were documented reports of one person being killed, 178 assaulted and 718 properties damaged or destroyed due to religious bias.

- Public opinion can be fickle. A 2000 survey by the First Amendment center found nearly 73 percent of Americans said the freedom to worship applies to all religious groups regardless of how extreme their beliefs are. In a 2007 survey, just 56 percent were as supportive.

More recently, the controversy over the New York mosque has brought to light several cases around the country where zoning restrictions and public pressures are being used to prevent new mosques from going up.

What is less well known is that Muslim groups are only a small fraction of the groups affected by zoning battles. The great majority are Christian congregations facing local governments bowing to pressures from Not In My Backyard groups of neighborhood residents or a desire to keep limited open land on the tax rolls.

"This is widespread across all denominations," Gill said. "It affects everybody."

'Your freedom is my freedom'

The truth, Grim and Finke note throughout their book, is that religious freedom can be inconvenient.

Neighbors don't want increased traffic on Sunday morning. Majority religions are tempted to limit competition and strengthen themselves by seeking favored status. Governments contemplate the strife committed in the name of religion, and see restrictions as a way to protect the public good.

Yet it is the act of restricting religion, not the presence of diverse groups of faiths, that most likely leads to religious persecution and violence, Grim and Finke maintain.

Religious freedom, Grim and Finke state, serves to reduce conflict, in part by decreasing public tolerance for vigilantism against less popular groups and guarding against the "tyranny of the majority." Minority religious groups also have fewer grievances that potentially fuel violence.

And, as illustrated by the pervasive religious zoning battles today and the 1990 Supreme Court decision in a case involving Native American religion that ended up having a chilling effect on religious liberty, all faith groups have a stake in protecting religious freedom, scholars say.

"The clear message is that even though religious freedoms are inconvenient, they're the very thing that diffuses religious tensions," Finke said. "Their religious freedoms are my religious freedoms."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

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