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Undeniably awful: Lobbyists for Christian privilege issue fallacious ‘report’

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The defenders of Christian privilege are peddling the false narrative that Christians are persecuted in the United States. Again.

Every year, Liberty Institute–which has restyled itself “First Liberty” for ironic reasons we’ll get to later–issues a report on hostility against Christians in America. The report is entitled, with no hint of satire or shame, “Undeniable” and it is full of mischaracterizations and specious claims. It is less a report and more a long list of press releases copied and pasted into a PDF. It is certainly not the scholarly proof of Christian persecution that it purports to be.

The “report” is another attempt to promote the Christian-persecution myth. Why? Because fear is an effective fundraiser, especially for Christians, who are primed by their religion to feel oppressed.

The cover of this year's report. The title is wrong, it's anything but.
The cover of this year’s report. The title is wrong, it’s anything but.

Last year, FFRF was the most mentioned secular group in Undeniable. It’s an honor we happily accepted, noting that Liberty Institute or First Liberty (I shall call them “the Institute” from here on out, it seems more appropriate) was basically awarding FFRF the blue ribbon for upholding the separation of state and church. We’re still waiting on that award and the Institute’s 2015 Scrooge Award, which FFRF also won. And the Institute needs to throw in a second blue ribbon, because FFRF was the most heavily featured secular group again this year.

Liberty Institute's 2015 Scrooge Award
Liberty Institute’s 2015 Scrooge Award

In this year’s report, the Institute let the hyperbole flow: “Hostility to religion in America is rising like floodwaters, as proven by the increased numbers of cases and attacks documented in this report.” That’s nonsense.

There’s a lot wrong with the report, but to spare you, dear reader, I’m going to focus on the two biggest flaws.

1. Their methodology is absurd. 

The Institute’s methodology is quantity; quality is irrelevant. The authors seem to believe the more they put into the report, the less people will read or, most importantly, criticize it. The Institute loves to claim that attacks on religious liberty are increasing. On Twitter, 24 times from January 1 through February 15–almost every other day–it claimed “Not only are these attacks on liberty becoming more numerous, but . . . the cases are getting worse.”

One headline relied on the “report” to claim: “1,285 Attacks on Religion in US in 2015, 100 Percent Increase Since 2013.” But the report says something slightly different: “More than 1,200 cases are documented in this 2016 edition of Undeniable.” “Documented in” the report on 2015 is not the same as “occurred in” 2015.

The Institute goes out of its way to make the cumulative total appear to be the annual total. In reality, it appears as though every year the new report just adds to the previous year’s report while allowing everyone to believe all those so-called attacks happened in that year. For example, the report cites the ACLU’s case against Birmingham, Ky., for its illegal nativity scene–which the ACLU won at the federal circuit court level because it was unconstitutional–as evidence that attacks on religion “in the public arena” are increasing. But the court decided that case in 1986, thirty years ago.

Put another way, the Institute is double-, triple-, and quadruple-counting these “attacks.” It’s as if I made $100,000 each year (not even close), and after three years claimed to be making $300,000 annually.

On the other hand, if I was earning $170,000 in 2011, and got salary bumps to $289,000 in 2012 and $325,000 in 2014, I could fairly say that my salary is “rising like floodwaters.” I can’t say that of myself, but these are the reported salaries of the Institute’s CEO, Kelly Shackelford. Apparently, scaring Christians with inflated numbers pays well.

Given this methodology, news outlets ought to be very careful about reporting this press release collage as accurate. In fact, it would be nice to see the media actually question and investigate the nonsense this report is spreading.

That headline declaring 1,285 attacks a “100 Percent Increase Since 2013” is wrong even by the report’s own standards. In 2013, “Undeniable” reported “almost 1,200 incidents of hostility to religion in America” (page 1). So there appears to be very little increase in hostility. And that’s assuming the Institute is reporting legitimate instances of hostility, which would be a mistake.

2. The “report’s” examples of hostility are drivel

The 1986 ACLU case mentioned above proves this point nicely. The nativity was on government property and was illegal. A court order removing something illegal is not hostility. That’s like arguing that a court forcing a spray-paint happy teen to scrub off his graffitti shows hostility to the criminal. The Supreme Court has essentially laughed off this argument. Justice William Brennan put it rather nicely:

It should be unnecessary to observe that [a curative] holding does not declare that the First Amendment manifests hostility to the practice or teaching of religion, but only applies prohibitions incorporated in the Bill of Rights in recognition of historic needs shared by Church and State alike. Sch. Dist. of Abington Twp. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 232 (1963) (Brennan, J., concurring)

The Institute also claims that mockery amounts to hostility:

After Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker noted that as a Christian he seeks God’s guidance and comfort through prayer, Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded that Walker’s office provide copies of all correspondence between Walker and God. After the office responded that they did “not have records responsive to your request,” media journalists mocked Governor Walker by saying that the lack of written correspondence proves that “Walker has not communicated with God.”

Like all claims of divine communication, Walker’s lacked evidence. Showing that a religious belief is without a factual foundation is not hostility, it’s just reality.

Much of what the report labels “hostility” is actually fairness. For example,the report mentions several cases during which FFRF stopped unlawful church bulletin discounts (i.e., “Bring in your church bulletin and get 10% off your meal”). Those discounts privilege customers based on their religion and force the nonreligious to pay a higher price. Halting that disparate treatment is equality, not hostility. The Institute can’t grasp the difference because Christian privilege is so entrenched that its removal feels like an attack. But it should get used to the feeling because the time of Christian privilege in this country is at an end.

Liberty Institute or First Liberty or First Liberty Institute?

Liberty Institute’s name change to First Liberty makes me want to ask them for a mortgage or insurance quote (except I wouldn’t entrust my funds to a group that doles out 90+% raises like candy). In a snazzy video released to go with the new name, the Institute’s attorneys explain the change:

“religious freedom” is the first phrase of the first amendment to our U.S. Constitution.

You’d think for attorneys who claim to specialize in First Amendment law that they would actually know what the First Amendment says. Not only is “religious freedom” not a phrase found in the First Amendment, it is not the first right that amendment protects:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The first clause–the Establishment Clause–is what FFRF fights to enforce every day. The first right enshrined in our Constitution, the right First Liberty has chosen to name itself after, is the right to a secular government. It’s what the Institute complained about for 376 interminable pages in “Undeniable.” The second clause–the Free Exercise Clause–is as important, but cannot exist without the first clause. Freedom of religion cannot exist without a government that is free from religion.

Taken together, these two clauses of the First Amendment build “a wall of separation between Church & State,” as Jefferson so memorably phrased it. If the Institute and its lawyers truly cared about protecting religious liberty and not simply lining their pockets, they’d be working with FFRF to ensure that Jefferson’s wall is tall and impregnable. Instead, they’re working to undermine the wall every chance they get. Shame on you, Second Liberty.

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