Jan 16, 2014

Religious Freedom, Anyone?

By Saadia Faruqi

Today is religious freedom day in the United States, a day celebrating the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom by President Thomas Jefferson in 1786. This piece of legislation effectively accomplished two things: it prohibited taxing people to pay for the local clergy, and it protected the rights of the public to express their religious beliefs without suffering discrimination. While two centuries ago most Americans were of the same faith, mostly Christian, in today’s America this concept of freedom of religious speech on an individual level becomes even more important.

President Obama in this year’s speech commemorating the day explained it well: 

Today, America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what binds us as one is not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skin, or the origins of our names. What makes us American is our adherence to shared ideals – freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

So what does this mean for us today? Are we finally at the point where our religious liberties and basic civil rights are protected, promoted and celebrated? Perhaps so for the mainstream, but for religious minorities in the United States, religious discrimination is still alive and well. Take the following examples: 
  • American Muslims across the country are prohibited from building mosques and Islamic community centers even though all Americans should have the right to build their place of worship without hindrance. The ACLU has a very interesting map of anti-mosque activities in various states here.
  • Jews are targeted regularly through hate crimes and other types of soft discrimination. The FBI hate crime statistics report details that of the 1,340 victims of an anti-religious hate crime 62.4% were victims of an offender’s anti-Jewish bias.
  • Christians who practice their faith in the public sphere are increasingly under attack because of a skewed understanding of religious freedom. Teachers are fired for praying or otherwise practicing their beliefs. Religious groups are sometimes penalized formally or informally from operating under their own belief systems, such as anti-abortion or anti-birth control policies.
To me, these examples show that as a society we have become excessive in restricting the civil liberties of others – whether due to a separation of church and state or as a result of intolerance in our minds. Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and even atheists are judged and by an intolerant yardstick and found lacking by the mainstream. We are not yet at that place where each and every one of us can stand up on the street corner and declare our religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. In fact if we do so, we risk ridicule, violence and in some cases even legal action. Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they banned the establishment of religion in the First Amendment or when Thomas Jefferson signed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom? 
I think not. I think we have become complacent, and looking around us at the horrific religious violence in other countries, have started feeling as if we don’t need any more improvements in America. I think we still have some way to go before Jefferson and his dream of religious liberty is realized.
Saadia Faruqi is the interfaith liaison for the  women's group of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and editor of Interfaith Houston. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ahmadiyya Community or Interfaith Houston. 

No comments:

Post a Comment