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September 6, 2016

America’s Religious Freedom Safeguards Advance Pluralism

BurkiniOver the last month how nations address religious garb has been making the news.  So-called “’Burkini’ Bans” enacted by 30 French municipalities are causing controversy. These bans adopted in part to be “’respectful of good morals and of secularism’” prohibit “a wide range of modest dress” at public beaches, including the Burkini which is a full-body bathing suit worn by observant Muslim women who follow Islamic modesty codes.  France’s top French administrative court and other lower courts have suspended these bans, but the prime minster continues to stand by them and public opinion on the issue is divided.  In Canada, the Royal Mounted Police recently announced that observant Muslim Mounties may wear hijabs.  These controversies and developments provide an opportunity to examine how the United States approaches religious freedom issues.

From its founding, the United States aspired to safeguard religious freedom for all, which was truly revolutionary.  This aspiration, however, does not mean that our nation has an unblemished record of religious inclusion.  Although there are countless examples of individuals and communities throughout our history embracing persons of other faiths, America has an ugly history of religious intolerance and issues of religious discrimination persist.  But unlike many other nations, in the United States there are formidable and effective laws prohibiting religious discrimination and requiring accommodations for the religiously observant.

The right to freedom of religion is so central to American democracy that it was enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That Amendment protects religious freedom in two ways.  Our Free Exercise Clause protects the autonomy of houses of worship from government interference and empowers all individuals with the right to follow any faith or no faith.  Our Establishment Clause separates government from religion by prohibiting official advancement, endorsement or coercion of religion.  Furthermore, Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office.

During the 20th Century, the federal courts and Congress applied these principles to the States and to private conduct.  The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.  Indeed, its workplace protections require employers to reasonably accommodate the religious practices and observances of employees.  And today, virtually all state and local anti-discrimination laws also prohibit religious discrimination, as well as require religious accommodations in the workplace.

So in the United States, a municipal law such as the ones in France targeting religious observances or practices, including wearing modest dress at the beach, would be patently unconstitutional and would violate federal, state or local laws.  And, generally speaking, the burden is on a public or private entity to justify why a religiously observant person cannot wear a hijab, yarmulke, turban or cross in the workplace or public accommodations, including restaurants, stores, theatres or recreational areas.

For instance, in 2015 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a major department store’s “dress policy” was an insufficient reason not to a hire a Muslim woman who wore a headscarf for religious reasons.   And in 2013, a federal agency that enforces the 1964 Civil Rights Act resolved a case with a national fast food franchisee for an observant Christian woman whose religious beliefs prohibit her from wearing pants.   Under the settlement, she would be permitted to wear a black skirt instead of black pants as normally required by the employer’s dress policy.

Furthermore, in America there are strong religious freedom safeguards even within institutional settings.   In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an Arkansas Department of Correction “no beards policy,” which prohibited a Muslim inmate from wearing a short beard.  The Court found that the safety and security issues raised by the Department were insufficient to justify the policy under federal law.  And just this year, after a federal court initially ruled in favor of a Sikh U.S. Army Captain, the Army granted him the religious accommodation of wearing a beard, turban, and uncut hair.

Also, it is common for the religiously observant to be accommodated without the force of law.  For example, at 2016 Rio Olympic games it was a non-issue for American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed to compete wearing a hijab.  Rather, her winning a bronze medal was celebrated in the United States and beyond.

American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed

American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed

Although religious bias cannot be legislated away, these legal proscriptions have been an invaluable tool for successfully integrating American society because over time limitations on conduct can shape attitudes.  Legal prohibitions on religious discrimination send the resounding official message that unequal treatment based on faith is unacceptable.  Their mandate of equal access to the work and marketplace brings together people from diverse religious beliefs and traditions.  Through daily interactions with work colleagues, vendors, customers—and yes, even beach-goers– most people come to realize that they have much in common with persons they once considered “the other” and learn to accept and value differences.

Our nation’s robust religious freedom protections are exceptional and distinguish America from numerous countries around the globe.  They undoubtedly have been a cornerstone for creating a truly pluralistic and welcoming society.

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July 3, 2014

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 3

On June 10, 1964, a year after President Kennedy first introduced the Civil Rights Act to the nation in a televised address, a coalition of 44 Democrats and 27 Republicans voted for cloture, which limited further debate and ended the 57-day filibuster of the bill.

ADL had lobbied for the bill in the months prior, including organizing a meeting of 100 Jewish business, professional, and civic leaders from all over the United States, who met in Washington, DC, and urged their home-state Senators to take action towards passage of the bill.

In a press release reacting to the Senate’s vote for cloture, ADL National Chairman Dore Schary stated:

The vote on the cloture rule which now assures passage of the Civil Rights Act is a victory for all who love justice and love an America conceived in liberty. It is a defeat for no one except those who would prevent America from achieving its ultimate dream… For the thousands of civil rights leaders and for the country as a whole, the final passage of the Civil Rights Bill will provide new opportunities, which they dare not squander, to help our Negro citizens achieve a full measure of their rights as Americans.

The Civil Rights Act passed the Senate with a vote of 73-27 on June 19.

On June 21, the same day on which three civil rights workers were kidnapped and murdered in Mississippi, the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights was held at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The Anti-Defamation League was among the sponsors of the rally, which featured the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. The rally was planned to urge passage by the Senate, but was ultimately anti-climactic, as passage by the House was the imminent. ADL’s Midwest Director A. Abott Rosen described the day:

There was no question of Jewish participation, there were no suspicions on the parts of blacks of Jews or other whites on this glorious day. We didn’t take a head count of the number of blacks and the number of wSigning_of_Civil_Rights_Acthites present in Soldiers Field that day, but to my eye, I would suggest that the group was almost equally divided.

On July 2, the House of Representatives voted by more than a two-thirds margin (289-126) to adopt the Senate-passed version of the Civil Rights Act. That day, President Johnson signed the bill in a nationally broadcast ceremony.

ADL’s National Program Director Oscar Cohen later recalled:

The question arose in ADL circles frequently as to why ADL was so totally involved with the struggle for equal rights for blacks … First, we claimed, that no minority was safe unless all minorities were and prejudice and discrimination could not be cured in our society unless the cure related to all minorities … if civil rights laws were passed, such as fair employment and fair housing laws, they would at one stroke eliminate discrimination against all groups, including Jews.

Today, ADL is help­ing to lead a very large coali­tion work­ing to fight dis­crim­i­na­tion, pro­mote equality, and pro­tect the same vot­ing rights for which civil rights workers Michael Schw­erner, Andrew Good­man, and James Chaney gave their lives. The League is urg­ing broad sup­port for the Vot­ing Rights Amend­ment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which would cre­ate a new for­mula for pre-clearing vot­ing rights changes.

Fifty years later, ADL commemorates the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as a paramount step towards our core value “to secure justice and fair treatment for all” and reaffirms our dedication to continue the fight in the ongoing struggle for equality.

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July 2, 2014

From the Archives: ADL & the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – Part 2


Abbie Rowe. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston Civil rights leaders pose with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson at a meeting at the White House on 22 June 1963. ADL National Director Benjamin Epstein stands to the right of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy

In January 1964, two months after President Kennedy’s death, ADL released its annual report on Congress and civil rights, declaring that because of President Johnson’s “unmatched knowledge” of Congress, “it is now more possible to pass” the Civil Rights Act that President Kennedy had introduced in a televised speech the previous year.

On January 31 Senator Edward M. Kennedy, in his first public appearance in New York since the death of his brother, addressed the 51st annual meeting of ADL. Senator Kennedy told the audience that the civil rights bill “will pass the House unweakened” and that only a filibuster could stop a Senate majority “ready and willing to vote for it.” Ten days later, the House passed the bill by a vote of 290 to 130 and sent it to the Senate, where it met a filibuster.

Soon after the filibuster began, Senators Abraham Ribicoff and Jacob Javits received ADL’s 1964 Human Rights Award. They spoke about the bill in their acceptance speech during the April 9 ceremony, expressing concern about the “‘so-called white backlash’ on civil rights in the North” and warning that “passage of the Civil Rights Bill would solve no problems unless ‘the ultimate responsibility for civil rights’ is accepted by individual Americans.’”

In late April, ADL National Chairman Dore Schary announced plans to convene a meeting of 120 Jewish business, professional, and civil leaders from all over the United States “to sound an alarm that time was running out” and “to urge that the Bill then under debate be passed without weakening deletions and amendments.” Said Schary of the Washington, DC, event:

“This meeting in the nation’s capital is an all-out effort by a group of leading citizens to aid their country in what they consider to be the most critical moment in one of the gravest crises in the past century. They believe that if the Civil Rights Act is not passed soon, the nation faces dangerous disorder in the coming summer months.”

The group, comprised of judges, municipal officials, performers in the arts, financial and industrial leaders from 30 states, first conferred with Administration and Senate spokesmen, and then called or met with their home-state legislators. The group also visited Arlington National Cemetery to “pay their respects to the memory of President Kennedy and leave a floral spray at the graveside.”

ADL National Director Benjamin R. Epstein later recalled the meeting in Not the Work of a Day, noting its success: “[B]y jiminy, it worked, and it was because it was an intelligent approach to lobbying, a perfectly legitimate way of achieving a purpose in a democratic society.” Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey wrote to say: “I am forever grateful … for the ADL’s visit to Washington on behalf of the Civil Rights Bill. The business leaders who gave of their valuable time … performed an indispensible service. I know from conversations with many Senators that their visits were truly effective.”

To be continued…

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