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January 15, 2016 0

Religious Freedom: Revolutionary and an American Strength

Jan­u­ary 16th is the 2016 obser­vance of National Reli­gious Free­dom Day, which was  estab­lished by Con­gress in 1993. It com­mem­o­rates the Vir­ginia Gen­eral Assembly’s 1786 adop­tion of the land­mark Vir­ginia Statute for Reli­gious Free­dom. Drafted by Thomas Jef­fer­son, it was the blue print for the reli­gious free­dom pro­tec­tions found in the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Two-hundred thirty years later, how­ever, these very lib­er­ties and prin­ci­ples are being chal­lenged often in the name of“religious freedom.”


The Statute for Reli­gious Free­dom was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change in the rela­tion­ship between gov­ern­ment and reli­gion. It sep­a­rated the two by pro­hibit­ing taxes sup­port­ing reli­gion, pro­vid­ing free exer­cise of reli­gion for all, and gen­er­ally bar­ring reli­gious tests for civic par­tic­i­pa­tion. These prin­ci­ples became the law of the land with the adop­tion of the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion and First Amendment.

The Constitution’s reli­gion clauses are the rea­son why a diver­sity of faiths has thrived in our nation for well-over 200 years. At their essence, the clauses pro­hibit gov­ern­ment from spon­sor­ing, sup­port­ing or sanc­tion­ing the impo­si­tion of reli­gious doc­trine or beliefs on cit­i­zens. They are a shield that safe­guards the reli­gious free­dom of all Amer­i­cans and our reli­gious institutions.

Address­ing these safe­guards in her last opin­ion, U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice San­dra Day O’Connor astutely observed:

[T]he goal of the Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of pre­serv­ing reli­gious lib­erty to the fullest extent pos­si­ble in a plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety. By enforc­ing the Clauses, we have kept reli­gion a mat­ter for the indi­vid­ual con­science, not for the pros­e­cu­tor or bureau­crat. At a time when we see around the world the vio­lent con­se­quences of the assump­tion of reli­gious author­ity by gov­ern­ment, Amer­i­cans may count them­selves for­tu­nate: … Those who would rene­go­ti­ate the bound­aries between church and state must there­fore answer a dif­fi­cult ques­tion: Why would we trade a sys­tem that has served us so well for one that has served oth­ers so poorly?

Despite Jus­tice O’Connor’s 2004 warn­ing, today we find our Constitution’s reli­gious free­dom pro­tec­tions and prin­ci­ples mis­un­der­stood and under chal­lenge. Most recently, lead­ing can­di­dates for the Pres­i­dency have said that Mus­lim Amer­i­cans are unfit to serve as Pres­i­dent and called for clos­ing down Mosques, as well as ban­ning Mus­lims from our shores. Such bla­tant reli­gious intol­er­ance is anti­thet­i­cal to our most core con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples and unac­cept­able from any per­son of good faith let alone an indi­vid­ual aspir­ing to the Pres­i­dency. Our nation’s wel­com­ing accep­tance of all reli­gious beliefs is a crit­i­cal tool in coun­ter­ing those groups and nations that seek to impose their faith on others.

In the States, dozens of bills have been filed over the last sev­eral years in the name of “reli­gious free­dom” that would allow busi­nesses — based on own­ers’ reli­gious beliefs — to refuse cus­tomers. Although many of these bills are directed at our nation’s LGBT com­mu­nity, they also could be used to turn away cus­tomers because for exam­ple they are Hindu, Human­ist, Jew­ish, Mor­mon or Mus­lim. Such leg­is­la­tion fun­da­men­tally mis­ap­pre­hends the pur­pose and scope of the Constitution’s reli­gious free­dom pro­tec­tions. They were never intended as a sword to impose reli­gious beliefs on oth­ers. The Con­sti­tu­tion most cer­tainly safe­guards the reli­gious beliefs and exer­cise of clergy, houses of wor­ship, and indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing beliefs and prac­tices about mar­riage. But for our plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety and mar­ket­place to prop­erly func­tion, they should not be used as a vehi­cle for discrimination.

The Con­sti­tu­tion also guar­an­tees the right of par­ents to send their chil­dren to reli­gious schools and reli­gious insti­tu­tions to per­form social and char­i­ta­ble ser­vices in-line with their reli­gious beliefs. But they in no way require the gov­ern­ment to fund either. Over the last 20 years, how­ever, Con­gress and state leg­is­la­tures have imple­mented pro­grams requir­ing tax­pay­ers to fund reli­gious schools and char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions, includ­ing those that dis­crim­i­nate or pros­e­ly­tize. Com­pelling tax­pay­ers to fund reli­gious insti­tu­tions with which they are not affil­i­ated or agree is anti­thet­i­cal to our con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ples. Prop­erly inter­preted, the Con­sti­tu­tion should bar such gov­ern­ment fund­ing of religion.

Our reli­gious free­dom pro­tec­tions are one of America’s great­est strengths and a key rea­son why our Nation is excep­tional. On National Reli­gious Free­dom Day all Amer­i­cans should take a moment to appre­ci­ate their indi­vid­ual reli­gious lib­erty and reflect on the fact that mil­lions around the world are reg­u­larly sub­ject to reli­gious coer­cion or per­se­cu­tion. These free­doms must not be taken for granted. Amer­i­cans of good faith should push back on efforts to mis­use them in ways that impose par­tic­u­lar reli­gious beliefs or tests on their fel­low citizens.






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December 7, 2015 1

When Injustice Goes Unchecked and Concealed, What Message Does This Send to Children?

LAQUAN_McDonald_Chicago_memorial_from_protestorsThir­teen months after Laquan McDon­ald was shot and killed by Chicago police offi­cer Jason Van Dyke, the recorded inci­dent was released to the pub­lic. The day before its release, Van Dyke was arrested for first-degree mur­der. The dis­turb­ing video shows seventeen-year-old McDon­ald being shot for fif­teen seconds—the major­ity for which he was down on the ground. At the time of the shoot­ing, a spokesper­son for Chicago’s police union said that Police Offi­cer Van Dyke had fired his gun after McDon­ald lunged at him with a knife but the video shows he was first shot while veer­ing away from the offi­cers. An autopsy revealed that Van Dyke shot McDon­ald a total of six­teen times.

Pub­lic offi­cials and the police depart­ment have known about the video for 400 days. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said that the video was not released ear­lier because of con­cerns it could taint a fed­eral and state inves­ti­ga­tion; how­ever, Jus­tice Depart­ment offi­cials said that the depart­ment never requested that the city with­hold the video. Because a jour­nal­ist work­ing on the case sued for release of the video, a county judge ordered the city to make it pub­lic. In the wake of these pub­lic rev­e­la­tions, the Police Super­in­ten­dent has been dis­missed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The back­drop and con­text of this inci­dent can­not be ignored. For the last six­teen months, this coun­try has been engaged in a pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion about high-profile cases of African Amer­i­can and Latino men being killed at the hands of the police: Fred­die Gray, Wal­ter Scott, Michael Brown, Eric Gar­ner and oth­ers. The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment has gal­va­nized issues of implicit bias and the racial dis­par­i­ties in the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem, shin­ing a light on the prob­lem and offer­ing pol­icy rec­om­men­da­tions. The McDon­ald case stands out in par­tic­u­lar because of the hor­rific nature of the video, the arrest of the offi­cer for first-degree mur­der and finally—and maybe most importantly—the length of time it took for the video to see the light of day and in what many peo­ple are call­ing a “cover up.”

In the midst of dis­turb­ing media reports and videos cov­er­ing these inci­dents, it is crit­i­cal to remem­ber that the major­ity of police offi­cers chose a career in law enforce­ment because they want to do good in their com­mu­ni­ties and aim to per­form their respon­si­bil­i­ties with honor and integrity. They put their lives on the line every­day as they aim to pro­tect the pub­lic and uphold the law.

As par­ents, edu­ca­tors and oth­ers who work with chil­dren, how­ever, we need to care­fully con­sider the mes­sage this lat­est inci­dent con­veys to young peo­ple about what to do when they wit­ness injus­tice. Anti-bias edu­ca­tion teaches young peo­ple what bias is and then how to address it; the over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage is that we all have a respon­si­bil­ity to con­front racism and all other forms of big­otry and that there a myr­iad of ways to inter­vene and be an ally. We teach stu­dents how to do something.

Although bul­ly­ing and bias in schools is not the same as an alleged mur­der such as in this case, there are some use­ful lessons in what we tell chil­dren about how to behave when faced with bias. We say that being a bystander is not enough. We pro­mote the con­cept that when you see bias and dis­crim­i­na­tion, you should do some­thing. And we teach them that there are many ways to be an ally.

One way is to not par­tic­i­pate. If we use that con­cept and apply it to this inci­dent, we see that there were peo­ple in author­ity who, instead of not join­ing in, par­tic­i­pated in the injus­tice by not speak­ing up about the inci­dent and not tak­ing action when the alleged mur­der was com­mit­ted. Fur­ther, it took the city more than a year to arrest the per­pe­tra­tor of the crime and some have said that many offi­cials were actively involved in a “cover up.”

We teach stu­dents that another way to be an ally is to tell the aggres­sor to stop. We don’t see any indi­ca­tion from the video—on the part of the other offi­cers stand­ing by—that Offi­cer Van Dyke was told to stop what he was doing to Laquan McDon­ald. After the inci­dent, the other police offi­cers did not come for­ward to bear wit­ness to what they saw. And again, it took thir­teen months for the video to be seen by the public.

“Get to know peo­ple instead of judg­ing them” is another crit­i­cal inter­ven­tion strat­egy. While we don’t know what was in the hearts and minds of Offi­cer Van Dyke, the other police offi­cers or the offi­cials who kept the video under wraps all that time, it seems pos­si­ble that implicit bias played a part and that the pat­tern of African Amer­i­can men being more likely to be killed by police offi­cers is germane.

Fourth, we encour­age young peo­ple to inform a trusted adult. The fun­da­men­tal idea is that if a child tells a trusted adult about an inci­dent of bias, bul­ly­ing or dis­crim­i­na­tion, that adult will do some­thing about it. In this case, the “trusted adults” would be the pub­lic offi­cials and police depart­ment (who had the video) because they are author­ity fig­ures with power. One of the rea­sons dash­cams exist is to pro­vide evi­dence when police offi­cers use unnec­es­sary or exces­sive force and once they had this infor­ma­tion, they should have done some­thing imme­di­ately rather than wait­ing for a court order to force them to make it public.

The col­lec­tive shock and dis­may around this case, the protests that have been tak­ing place in Chicago, the fir­ing of the Chicago Police Super­in­ten­dent and the arrest of Police Offi­cer Van Dyke will not bring Laquan McDon­ald back. If pub­lic offi­cials and the police depart­ment had acted the way we tell young peo­ple to act, things may have turned out very dif­fer­ently. Per­haps if we can glean some­thing instruc­tive from this case, namely our respon­si­bil­ity to be an ally in con­fronting injus­tice, we will finally begin to turn this around.

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November 20, 2015 0

Today We Remember Transgender Lives Lost and Recommit to Justice

For the past six­teen years on Novem­ber 20th, trans­gen­der peo­ple and allies around the world have come together to mark Trans­gen­der Day of Remem­brance (TDOR). It is a day to honor trans­gen­der peo­ple whose lives trag­i­cally ended in the last year as a result of anti-transgender vio­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion and cel­e­brate the resilience of those who are liv­ing. At memo­r­ial ser­vices around the coun­try, the names of trans­gen­der peo­ple who have been killed in the last year are read.


Much like observ­ing a yahrtzeit (the anniver­sary of a death), it is a time for reflec­tion and intro­spec­tion. This year was an espe­cially vio­lent year, with at least 22 reported mur­ders in the United States since Jan­u­ary, almost dou­ble the num­ber of trans mur­ders in all of 2014. This year has also wit­nessed a sig­nif­i­cant increase in reported non-lethal anti-trans vio­lence. And the major­ity of this year’s vic­tims were trans­gen­der women of color.

Just this past week, the Con­gres­sional LGBT Equal­ity Cau­cus hosted a forum that brought together advo­cates and com­mu­nity lead­ers to dis­cuss how to address soar­ing lev­els of vio­lence against trans­gen­der peo­ple. Unsur­pris­ingly, issues of racism, poverty, the sys­tem­atic mar­gin­al­iza­tion of trans peo­ple, includ­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion in schools, jobs and hous­ing were high­lighted. Advo­cates pri­or­i­tized com­pre­hen­sive nondis­crim­i­na­tion pro­tec­tions and immi­gra­tion and crim­i­nal jus­tice reform as a way to reduce vio­lence against trans people.

Also ear­lier this week, the FBI released the 2014 Hate Crime Sta­tis­tics Act (HCSA) report. While the report doc­u­mented a decrease in the num­ber of reported hate crimes in the United States, crimes tar­get­ing vic­tims on the basis of their gen­der iden­tity tripled. Tripled. And the vio­lence against trans­gen­der peo­ple is not lim­ited to the United States.  Trans Mur­der Mon­i­tor­ing (TMM) project, a pro­gram of Trans­gen­der Europe, sys­tem­at­i­cally mon­i­tors, col­lects and ana­lyzes reports of homi­cides of trans peo­ple world­wide. This year TMM iden­ti­fied 271 trans per­sons to be added to the list to be remembered.

It is impor­tant to take this day to mourn and to honor the lives of those trag­i­cally cut short by hatred and vio­lence. And it is also a day to re-commit to nam­ing the prob­lems work­ing on solutions.

A com­pre­hen­sive fed­eral anti-discrimination law that explic­itly includes gen­der iden­tity is essen­tial. We must ensure that trans­gen­der peo­ple are explic­itly pro­tected from dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing, employ­ment, pub­lic accom­mo­da­tions, edu­ca­tion, fed­eral fund­ing, credit, and jury ser­vice. These legal pro­tec­tions will go far in reduc­ing the num­ber of trans­gen­der peo­ple put in vul­ner­a­ble posi­tions as a result of discrimination.

State hate crime laws must cover hate crimes com­mit­ted on the basis of gen­der iden­tity and expres­sion. An inclu­sive fed­eral hate crime law is not enough. We must redou­ble our efforts to ful­fill the goals of ADL’s 50 States Against Hate cam­paign, par­tic­u­larly enhanced train­ing for law enforce­ment offi­cers on how to iden­tify and respond to hate crimes com­mit­ted against trans peo­ple, bet­ter data col­lec­tion and report­ing by law enforce­ment agen­cies, and increased pub­lic education.

And we must edu­cate young peo­ple and edu­ca­tors about trans­gen­der lives. Our schools must be places where trans­gen­der and gen­der non-conforming youth are able to thrive in an envi­ron­ment that is safe and free from bul­ly­ing and harassment.

So today, we remem­ber and mourn. Tomor­row we con­tinue to fight fiercely for secur­ing jus­tice and fair treat­ment to all.


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