BROWNBACK, PERKINS: Religious Intolerance Is on the Rise in the West, and We Must Act
In February 2021, Rosa Lalor went outside to take a walk and pray in Liverpool, England. The U.K. government was recommending people take daily walks, even during the lockdown. But when Rosa paused to pray — silently and with a face mask — in front of an abortion facility, she was arrested and fined. Police officers labeled the 76-year-old grandmother’s prayer walk a “protest” that lacked a “reasonable excuse” to be outdoors. She’s now embroiled in a court case she scarcely could have imagined would result from her outing that day.
This case exemplifies the creeping danger of religious freedom violations in the West. While we recognize the increasing threat, many of us still might be tempted to think that religious freedom is only a concern for cake bakers who decline to design cakes for same-sex weddings or medical professionals who don’t want to carry out abortions. Lalor’s situation proves otherwise. Attacks on religious freedom hinder everyone’s ability to choose, change, or live out their faith.
In Canada, congregations like GraceLife Church in Edmonton were subjected to government restrictions that unfairly targeted houses of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pastor James Coates, who believed it was important for church congregations to meet together in person, continued to hold services despite the government’s order. For that, Coates was arrested and spent a month in jail. At one point, Canadian authorities even blocked the entrances and erected fencing around GraceLife Church.
In Finland, a Christian member of parliament was prosecuted under a hate speech law for merely expressing a biblical understanding of marriage and sexuality on social media, in a radio interview, and in a pamphlet that was printed 20 years ago. Respectful and soft-spoken, Päivi Räsänen is far from “hateful.” Yet, the Finnish prosecutor general utilized Finland’s hate speech provisions in an attempt to silence Räsänen’s religious expression simply because it could have been considered offensive; no Finnish citizen even brought forward a legal complaint.
After almost three years of litigation, the court finally dismissed all charges against Räsänen on March 30, 2022. However, in a sign of incredible hostility to religion, the Finnish state prosecutor has now filed an appeal to continue pursuing criminal charges against Räsänen.
Sadly, Western culture is growing increasingly hostile to foundational Christian beliefs about marriage, sexuality, and ethical behavior — including many beliefs that Judaism and Islam often share. Thus, challenges to religious believers’ right to live out their faith in the public square are mounting, and secular forces are attempting to marginalize their speech. In the United States, Coach Joe Kennedy recently found out just how hostile some people are to simple Christian expressions of faith when he was fired for quietly praying by himself at the 50-yard line of a high school football field. His case was recently heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Western democracies have long championed basic human rights, including freedom of religion, but we are approaching a crossroads. We have a choice. Will we affirm and bolster the fundamental freedoms that have been so instrumental to our historical prosperity? Or will we enforce new secular dogmas, restricting and punishing any religious speech or actions with which they are offended?
Big Tech has not been shy to silence voices that don’t align with secular dogmas. It’s not hard to imagine a world in which their methods could also be used to stifle religious expression. Outside the West, companies like Apple and Amazon have already proven willing to cooperate with the authoritarian Chinese government to remove Bible and Quran apps from their platforms.
This bristling hostility toward religion is made all the more dangerous as Western governments seize more power, and it warrants a bold response from people of faith. On a political level, we must never allow governments the power to snuff out religious freedom in a blanket fashion (as they have at times recently been doing), even during a public health crisis. On an individual level, we must use and exercise the religious freedom we do have in the West. If believers are intimidated into silence due to social pressure or the fear of legal action, the space to live out one’s faith in public life will only shrink.
The threat to religious freedom in the West is not going away; it is only growing. To promote this fundamental human freedom abroad, we must first protect it at home.
**Join the efforts of the newly formed National Committee for Religious Freedom (NCRF) to fight for this cornerstone human right.
Tony Perkins is president of Family Research Council and former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Samuel Brownback served as U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom from 2018-2021.
Tony Perkins is president of Family Research Council and executive editor of The Washington Stand.