Attacks on religious liberty in US increased by 15 percent in 2016, new report says

(Reuters/Nate Chute)Demonstrators gather at Monument Circle to protest a controversial religious freedom bill signed by then-Governor Mike Pence during a rally in Indianapolis March 28, 2015.

A new report published by a conservative legal group has indicated that the number of attacks on religious liberty has been growing in the U.S., with a 15-percent increase in the last year and a 133-percent increase in the last five years.

The report, titled "Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America," was released on Tuesday by the First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit legal group dedicated to defending the religious rights of individuals and organizations.

The 418-page document highlights 1,400 reported cases of attacks on religious liberty this year, an increase of 133 percent since 2011, when there were 600 reported cases.

One of the cases listed in the document was that of Alexia Palma, who was fired from her job as a health clinic worker in inner city Houston in 2016 for refusing to take part in a class on birth control because of her Catholic faith.

Palma had always been allowed to opt out of teaching the class by showing a film instead, but when she came under new management, she was told that she will no longer be able to show the video and that she must teach the class herself.

"I was shocked because teaching that class constituted about two percent of my job. I even had another employee that volunteered to teach the class for me but they were like, 'No, you have to personally teach the class.' I told them I couldn't. I told them my faith would always come first and I was terminated because of that," she recounted.

With the help of First Liberty, Palma filed a lawsuit against her former employer and won a large settlement.

The legal group also took up and won the case of Giovanni Rubeo, a 9-year-old Floridian who got in trouble with his Ft. Lauderdale school when he brought a Bible for free reading time.

The report also pointed to other cases including one involving a woman who was ordered by police officers to stop praying in her own home and another involving a high school football coach who was punished for praying at midfield.

First Liberty Institute CEO Kelly Shackelford contended that the cases highlighted in the report are far from isolated incidents.

"Even we were shocked by how pervasive the issue was," he said. "This was in every community of every state in the country, these issues, these problems, these attacks on religious freedom," he added.

Jeremy Dys, who serves as general counsel at the institute, said that a copy of the report has been sent to President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and every member of the Congress.

Shackelford said that First Liberty has won over 90 percent of its cases over the past 17 years, but noted that the number of attacks on religious liberty is still increasing.

"We're really in the middle of the battle," he said, adding that a great deal depends on its outcome.

"We're going to determine whether we remain the United States of America that was founded on religious freedom," he concluded.

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