Remarks by Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez on Combating Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief

For an overview of this topic, see U.S. Hosts Meeting On The Istanbul Process For Combating Intolerance, Discrimination, And Violence On The Basis Of Religion Or Belief

I am very pleased and honored that my colleagues at the State Department invited me to speak to you at the opening of this three-day conference on combating discrimination and violence based on religion or belief. And it is a particular honor to address such a distinguished group of experts from nations around the world on this critically important subject.

The freedom of religious expression and worship, and the importance of being freed from discrimination and violence based on religion, are, as Secretary Clinton said, “Fundamental freedoms that belong to all people in all places.” In the United States we sometimes call religious freedom “the First Freedom,” because it was so important to the history of our nation’s founding as a place where people of many different faiths could come and worship in peace, and because it is the first right listed in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The “First Freedom” phrase also acknowledges that religious freedom is a core right, involving our greatest aspirations and hopes as individuals, our central and defining beliefs, and the traditions and values that connect us to our predecessors and which we want to pass on to our children. This is why it is among the human rights and fundamental freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of which, as you know, states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council echoed the Universal Declaration in resolution 16/18, which is the basis for this conference. As important as it is to assert such principles, however, it is equally or even more important to ensure that such principles are put into practice.

The United States’ Declaration of Independence declared in 1776 that “all men are created equal,” but it took 100 years and a civil war that took hundreds of thousands of lives to end slavery; another hundred years to create legal equality for African Americans; and we struggle to this day to make equality a reality. I see this every day in my work as the chief civil rights law enforcement official for the United States. I know first-hand the hard work that is involved, and the frustrations when we fall short of our principles.

The same is true for religious freedom in the United States: we possess strong and timeless principles of religious liberty, but ensuring that they are a reality for all requires great vigilance, effort, and perseverance. And as with the issue of race, there is often a great distance between principle and reality. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we saw a sharp rise in hate crimes and discrimination against Muslims and people mistaken as being Muslim, including Arabs, South Asians, and Sikhs, as some people among us pursued the twisted logic that an attack on innocents could be avenged by another attack on innocents who simply shared the same faith or ethnicity of the perpetrators. We also see how we fall short of principle in the hate-fueled vandalism and arson of synagogues, as well as churches, especially African American churches. Countering and prosecuting such acts and ensuring the endurance of our ideals takes great focus and sustained effort.

This is the challenge before each of you in the work you do in your respective countries: how to make the promise of religious freedom and ending religious violence and discrimination a reality. And it is the challenge before this conference for us to engage in a dialogue in which we all might learn from one another how to better assure that these noble principles and goals are realized in practice.

I would like to help kick off this dialogue by talking a little about the American experience in putting the principles of religious liberty and religious tolerance into practice. Many of the people who first came to America from Europe were fleeing persecution and seeking a place to practice their religion in peace. While most of these people belonged to various Christian sects, the principles of religious freedom that were laid down were intentionally written in universal terms.

Thomas Jefferson, who also wrote the Declaration of Independence, which I mentioned earlier, wrote the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, passed in 1786. This seminal document provided the framework for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution three years later. The Virginia Statute eliminated laws that had barred non-Christians from holding public office and enjoying other legal privileges, and swept away heresy laws that had outlawed dissent from certain Christian doctrines.

When the Virginia Statute was being debated, there was a move by some legislators to insert a reference to Jesus Christ. This effort was defeated. Thomas Jefferson remarked that he was pleased that this maneuver failed, because indeed it had been his specific intention to include “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, Mohamaden and Hindu” under the law’s protections.

George Washington, the first U.S. President and the man after whom this city is named after, likewise repeatedly expressed that religious liberty was intended for all. He expressed this in a famous letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, saying that the United States welcomed people of all faiths to become citizens.

America was and remains a country that is majority Christian. And its culture is heavily Christian, as the Christmas decorations you will see around the city this month attest. But its government has never been Christian. The second U.S. president, John Adams signed a treaty with the Bey of Tunis in 1797, declaring that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” and “has no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Muslims.” It further stated that “no pretext, arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

This attention to religious freedom, stated by our founding fathers and in our founding documents, has a long and proud history in application. At the time of the American Civil War, for example, Quakers were vilified for their pacifistic stance and imprisoned for failing to fight for the union. After an appeal by Quaker leaders directly to President Abraham Lincoln, he granted them the right of conscientious objection, and that has been honored in every war since. It is in wartime, when the stakes are so high, that true dedication to principle is tested. In the middle of World War II, with patriotic fervor at its highest, the Supreme Court ruled that Jehovah’s Witness children could not be forced to say the pledge of allegiance to the United States, a stunning victory for conscience. Our dedication to religious liberty in these and many other contexts has led to the United States becoming a place where a multiplicity of faiths have flourished—not just major faith groups like Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists, but thousands of sects and subsects within major faith groups.

This is not to say that we have always been consistent in supporting religious liberty. It is hard to think today of Catholics in the United States being a persecuted and despised minority—they constitute more than 25% of the population in the U.S. and are powerful politically, culturally, and economically. But the experience of Catholics in the 20th Century has many parallels to the plight of Muslims today. Catholics were immigrants and outsiders to the mainstream culture, and were seen by many as following a strange religion that was bent on world domination, in particular the undermining of American democracy and imposition of a theocracy.

The violence and hatred that Catholics faced was completely at odds with our fundamental principles. In 1834, a mob near Boston, Massachusetts burned down a convent, convinced that something evil was going on inside. In 1844, riots broke out in Philadelphia when a rumor circulated that Catholics were trying to remove the Bible from the public schools, resulting in the burning of Catholic churches and seminaries. In a story showing the best of the American tradition, at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a large group of Quakers gathered and surrounded the church, preventing the mobs from destroying it.

Other groups have been met at various times in our history with discrimination and violence, in the U.S., including Jews, Mormons, and most recently Muslims. This was never due to a failure of our principles, which reflect universal and timeless values, but rather a failure of applying them consistently.

Ensuring the realization of these values requires the efforts of all three branches of government—the Congress, in enacting laws to protect against religious discrimination and religious violence; —the executive branch, in enforcing these laws; —and the judiciary, interpreting these laws and protecting constitutional principles.

America’s legacy of racial discrimination has ironically aided us in protecting religious liberty. In 1964, after the sustained advocacy of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation to protect against discrimination in a wide range of contexts, including employment, education, public accommodation.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 empowered the Department of Justice to use its resources to enforce the Act’s provisions. While the main purpose of the Act was to end racial discrimination, the law also barred discrimination based on national origin, sex, and religion. This law, and others enacted over the years since, provide my agency, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, with powerful tools to combat religious discrimination and religion-based violence.

While race-motivated hate crimes remain the greatest problem we address, we also prosecute many cases of religion-based hate crimes, including attacks and threats against individuals and vandalism and arson of places of worship. Attacks on Jews and vandalism of synagogues remain a serious problem, driven by the persistence of organized neo-Nazi groups. After 9/11, as I mentioned earlier, we witnessed a sharp rise in hate crimes against Muslims, and those perceived to be Muslim, including Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians. This dropped off sharply the following year and continually dropped over subsequent years. Then in 2010 we saw an upturn, with a 50% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. My office is vigorously prosecuting these cases.

We are currently prosecuting a man in the State of Oregon for allegedly setting fire to a mosque last year. Earlier this year, we obtained a conviction of a man who set fire to playground equipment outside of a mosque in Texas. This hate-fueled violence will not be tolerated.

We are actively working to prevent discrimination in employment. My office is currently suing New York City for refusing to allow Sikh men and Muslim women working as bus and subway drivers to wear religious headcoverings with their uniforms. These cases can touch many different faith groups. Two years ago, we settled a similar case against the Washington, D.C. transit authority for refusing to allow a Pentecostal woman bus driver to wear a skirt instead of pants with her uniform, and refusing to allow two Muslim women to wear headscarves.

We also bring suits to prevent religious discrimination and harassment in public schools. Earlier this year we resolved a case in which Somali Muslim students in Minnesota had been subject to harassment by other students and disproportionate discipline from school administrators.

We also protect religious exercise by students in public schools. We successfully sued a school in the State of Oklahoma for refusing to allow a Muslim girl to wear a headscarf to school. We have won the right for Muslim students to gather during the lunch hour to pray, and similarly for Christian students to gather for Bible study during free periods.

We have also brought cases involving housing discrimination based on religion, religious discrimination in public accommodations such as restaurants, and in access to public facilities, such as winning the right of women wearing headscarves to enter county courthouses in the State of Georgia. My colleagues from the Justice Department will be talking about these cases in the roundtable discussions over the next three days.

One final area I would like to highlight is our work fighting for the ability of religious groups to buy property and build places of worship and religious schools. In the United States, as in many countries, local officials in cities and towns have great power in determining which types of buildings will be allowed in which neighborhoods. Unfortunately, this power is often used in arbitrary or discriminatory ways to deny permits to religious communities.

In response, in 2000, Congress unanimously passed a law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act that prohibits discriminatory or arbitrary denial of permission to religious communities to build places of worship or religious schools. The law gives the religious groups the right to sue, but it also empowers the Department of Justice to bring suit.

We have used this law to require cities to allow the building of churches, mosques, synagogues, a Buddhist Temple, a Sikh Gurdwara, and various religious schools. One area where we have seen a particularly large number of cases in the last two years is mosque construction. We are investigating many such cases, and just this past September, we resolved two cases—one in Virginia and one in Georgia—in which mosques had been denied permits that had been routinely granted to Christian churches. Our investigation also uncovered evidence of overt anti-Muslim bias. I am happy to report that the court-supervised settlement in those cases will allow the mosques to be built, and also require numerous corrective measures for the city and county involved, including training on nondiscrimination law and new procedures.

So as you can see, I have a lot of work to do, putting U.S. principles of religious freedom into practice, just as each of you do in your countries. While every country has its own unique situations and challenges, we can learn much from each other. My hope is that each of us will come away from this conference with clearer insights into the challenges that other countries face, and, just as importantly, with a new perspective on the challenges we each face in our own countries.

Thank you.

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