Recent American debates about religious liberty have centered on whether the White House or any other branch of the government can decree that "freedom of worship" is more worthy of protection than the "free exercise" of religious freedom, a much broader constitutional concept.
While the HHS disputes will almost certainly reach the U.S. Supreme Court, the organizers of the Georgetown forum dedicated just as much attention to limitations on religious freedom worldwide, a trend being documented in annual reports by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The most recent survey noted: "Because some of the most restrictive countries are very populous, three-quarters of the world's approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70 percent a year earlier. ... The rising tide of restrictions ... is attributable to a variety of factors, including increases in crimes, malicious acts and violence motivated by religious hatred or bias, as well as increased government interference with worship or other religious practices."
The bottom line is that religious liberty is important for believers and unbelievers alike, and is linked to the success of any state or government, said Thomas Farr, director of the Berkley Center. Studies indicate that religious liberty promotes economic development, women's rights, political stability and improved care of the poor and the vulnerable.
But severe restrictions on religious freedom, especially for religious minorities, are increasing and not just in the developing world, he said.
"Christians are the most likely victims and Muslims come in a close second. While most of the persecution takes place outside the West, neither Europeans nor Americans can afford to be complacent," said Farr. "Social hostility toward religion is rising faster in Europe than any other region of the world. And here in America, where religious liberty has long been considered the first freedom of our constitution and our history, both social hostility and government restrictions on religion are on the rise."