Religious Freedom Is Good for Business

Religious Freedom Is Good for Business {
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Growing threats against Americans' religious exercise and identity call for a new generation of education and advocacy on behalf of religious freedom for all faiths.

President Obama extolled the virtues of our nation's religious civil rights and liberties in this year's Religious Freedom Day proclamation. "From many faiths and diverse beliefs," the president said, "Americans are united by the ideals we cherish. Our shared values define who we are as a people and what we stand for as a Nation."

Mr. Obama noted that our unified national commitment to fundamental rights for all has not come cheaply. Rather, it is due to the labors of multiple "generations of patriots" who resolutely fought "through great conflict and fierce secure and defend these freedoms."

Among a list of troubling indicators that today's civil rights advocates must address are studies by the independent Pew Research Center. These studies, conducted from 2006 through 2015, show a marked increase of both government restrictions on religion and social hostilities involving religion in the U.S. Other research, such as that showcased in the 2011 book The Price of Freedom Denied, demonstrates that religious hostilities typically increase in lockstep with increased government encroachments on religious freedom.

In its most evil form, social hostility involving religion takes the form of violence, such as the shootings motivated by anti-religious animus that left eight dead at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012 and three dead at multiple Jewish community centers in Kansas City during Passover season last year. But such hostilities often metastasize in non-violent but still deeply concerning forms. These include the anti-religious animus that has motivated efforts in several states to prevent Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians from building or renovating houses of worship.

Government restrictions and social hostility often surface first in attacks against minority religions and their members. This is one reason why collaborative efforts are needed by Americans of all faiths to protect, not just their own freedoms, but also the rights and liberties of religious minorities and others.

Our collective concern should be raised as well by research showing that social hostility involving religion is already more widespread in the U.S. than we might imagine. For instance, a joint Tanenbaum-Public Religion Research survey uncovered an epidemic of U.S. workplace discrimination based on religious orientation (including non-religious orientations such as atheism). According to the national survey, 36 percent of American workers have experienced or witnessed workplace religious discrimination, ranging from non-accommodation of days of worship for a growing segment of U.S. employees to refusal to hire people based on their religious identity or dress.

The U.S. Supreme Court is deciding an important workplace religious discrimination case this term. Samantha Elauf is a young Muslim American who, because of her religious beliefs, wears a headscarf. Abercrombie & Fitch refused to consider her for employment in one of its Oklahoma stores because of the headscarf she wore to her interview. Ms. Elauf's case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year.

Among its landmark protections against discrimination in employment, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it unlawful to discriminate against an employee or prospective employee because of his or her religion. In 2013, Abercrombie & Fitch settled two cases similar to Ms. Elauf's that the federal EEOC brought on behalf of two other young Muslim women who said they were subjected to religious discrimination by stores in California. The company has since changed its nationwide "look" policy to accommodate some religious clothing but argues that federal civil rights law does not obligate it to accommodate Ms. Elauf's religious practice.

Few would be surprised that Ms. Elauf's cause drew support -- in the form of amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) briefs -- from a contingent of Muslim organizations. But those filing amicus briefs also represented a broad range of other faith backgrounds.

The array of supporters included Jewish and Sikh groups, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a major denomination of the black church, a conservative Christian lawyers group, and the nation's largest Evangelical organization. Politically and culturally divergent states from Massachusetts to Arizona also supported Ms. Elauf.

A growing body of research indicates that broad and strong protections for religious freedom are good for business. A study published last year in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion found a strong positive relationship between religious freedom and ten of the World Economic Forum's twelve leading indicators of global competitiveness.

Conversely, this study also found that religious restrictions and hostility create climates that can depress investment, foment economic uncertainty, and undermine growth.

New challenges periodically arise to the fundamental freedoms we have come to take for granted. When they do it is important to remember that -- regardless of what our religious beliefs may be or not be -- we all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. One crucial way in which our nation recognizes this is by providing broad, strong, and equal protections for all religions and all peaceful religious practices.

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