The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has announced a new inter-agency initiative to address religious discrimination directed toward minority faith groups. Under the banner of “Combating Religious Discrimination Today,” the government will host a series of “community roundtables” nationwide it says will address religious bullying in public schools, employment discrimination, hate crimes and unconstitutional barriers to the construction of houses of worship.
“Hate-motivated violence, harassment and discrimination violate America’s laws and threaten our founding vision of a free and tolerant society that welcomes people from every creed and walk of life,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement. “Robust community engagement and meaningful dialogue can help our country fulfill its promise of religious freedom, and we look forward to tackling this challenging work with creative solutions in the months ahead.”
The initiative combines the efforts of the Departments of Education, Homeland Security and Labor and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), in addition to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI, the Office of Justice Programs and the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and Community Relations Service.
In the same statement, the DOJ noted that it has investigated over 1,000 hate crimes and other acts of discrimination against faith groups since September 11th, 2001. This disturbing trend correlates to a steady rise in crimes committed against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which investigates hate crimes, announced last year that anti-Muslim crimes had risen 14 percent in 2014, from 135 to 154. In an article for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hatewatch blog, Mark Potok argued that the FBI’s numbers are probably low.
According to reports by the Bureau of Justice Studies, there are likely 260,000 hate-motivated crimes per year in the U.S.; the FBI typically investigates anywhere from 6,000 to 11,000 annually. “That suggests that the real numbers are some 25 to 40 higher than the FBI totals, which in turns means the real 2014 total of anti-Muslim hate crimes could be as many as 6,000 or more,” Potok wrote.
There have already been several high-profile hate crimes this year. In February, a still-unidentified suspect broke into a Minneapolis mosque and vandalized it, causing $5,000 worth of damage. Earlier this month, a Spokane, Wash., man broke into a local Sikh gurdwara and caused $35,000 worth of damage; he told police he believed he had discovered a mosque affiliated with ISIS. And a Buddhist monk was recently attacked in Oregon after a man mistook him for a Muslim.
There is little question that bias contributes both to violent crime and to non-violent, but still discriminatory, acts. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion. But it is a paper tiger if it is not enforced—or if constitutional expressions of faith are met by violence.
Faith communities have the legal right to build houses of worship in areas that are zoned for such purposes. They have the legal right to receive religious accommodations at work that don’t impose burdens on others. But all too often, religious minorities have had to go to court to access these rights.
That is what religious discrimination actually looks like. It’s a far cry from asking bakers to obey public accommodation laws. Let’s hope the DOJ’s new initiative turns out to be a meaningful way to address discrimination—and perhaps even reclaim "religious freedom" from the Religious Right.