A week before President Donald Trump rolled out his new religious liberty order, experts and politicians at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing discussing the recent rise in religious hate crime agreed that the government needs to better enforce the right to freedom of religion, not curtail it.
“I hope that this administration will begin to take steps to heal, rather than perpetuate and exploit, divides in our country. There is no place in this country for any form of bigotry, racism, anti-Semitism, or Islamophobia. We must all stand together to reject it,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) at the May 2 hearing.
But Trump’s latest order does nothing to protect the rights of religious people experiencing hate crimes, advocates say. It merely opens the door for other forms of discrimination.
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a statement that the order provides “a faux sop to religious conservatives and [kicks] the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive health care services.” He added that the ACLU “will continue our steadfast charge to defend Americans’ right to exercise their religion and ensure their freedom from having others’ beliefs forced upon them.”
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What the order advances is the notion that certain religious groups have a right to impose their beliefs on others—such as by speaking about political issues from the pulpit or denying their employees insurance coverage of contraceptives—while staying silent on the religious freedom of especially vulnerable religious groups that have seen a surge in hate-based attacks in recent months.
In some ways, the order seems at odds with statements given by police, civilians, and politicians at the recent hearing, agreeing that all people need to be treated as equals in the United States, irrespective of which countries they come from or what religions they follow.
This includes testimony from Prabhjot Singh, a Columbia University professor and a physician who learned first-hand about hate when he was brutally assaulted September 2013 in New York City.
An American Sikh (a religion founded in India, an offshoot from Hinduism), Singh said he was called “terrorist,” “Osama,” and his beard was pulled before the assailants surrounded him and beat him up.
Having faced other hate crimes that did not make the headlines, Singh said he is concerned about what his two young sons might face growing up in America. Words matter and politicians should be held accountable if their words put their constituents in danger, he said in a direct dig at the Trump administration.
“It seems fashionable these days for politicians to scapegoat immigrants and Muslims, but this endangers all of us. My personal experience with hate violence is a case in point. Please hold each other accountable and make it stop,” he said.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)’s new report, titled The Empowerment of Hate, indicates a 57 percent increase in anti-Muslim incidents and a 44 percent increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2016.
Preliminary data also show that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) profiling accounted for 23 percent of all CAIR case intakes in the first three months of this year.
“It is time for the Trump administration to seriously address the growing anti-minority sentiment in our nation, prompted at least in part by his toxic campaign rhetoric, the appointment of Islamophobes to policy-making posts and the introduction of Islamophobic policies such as the ‘Muslim ban,'” said Corey Saylor, director of CAIR’s Department to Monitor and Combat Islamophobia and co-author of the report, in a press release.
Hate crimes make up over 4 percent of all violent crime in the United States, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data from 2012 and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s November report showed a 6.7 percent rise in reported hate crimes in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.
The spike in hate crimes targeting particular religions has been well-documented in the news this year—from a man suspected of shooting two Indian men in Kansas to bomb threats targeting Jewish community centers around the country.
Deeply concerned with this trend, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent bipartisan agency, has called on officials to “respond immediately and effectively to end violence based on religion, national origin, race, or other identity status.”
“No community should have to fear attacks based on how they look, where they are from, whom they love, or what they believe. We must all come together to fight against such hate and intolerance, which has no place in our society,” Chair Catherine E. Lhamon said in a press release.
Religious hate crimes are a matter of great bipartisan interest, said Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
“Many of these crimes would never have been committed but for hatred. They run counter to American values such as religious freedom and tolerance. Americans have the right to be safe against those who would treat them as members of religious groups rather than as individuals.”
Too many people feel unwelcome, unsafe, and marginalized in America today, said Vanita Gupta, incoming president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
“Divisive rhetoric during the recent presidential election, comments and policies targeting or casting wide aspersions on Muslim, immigrant, and other marginalized communities have heightened concerns that our country is increasingly legitimizing or normalizing hate,” she said during her testimony.
With a light-hearted signing of the executive order amid faith group leaders in the Rose Garden last week, Trump claimed to want to end attacks on their religious freedoms.
But failing to acknowledge the actual burden facing some religious individuals experiencing hate crimes, Trump’s order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” fell short.
“President Trump has missed numerous opportunities to condemn prejudice targeting Muslim in the United States. Given that his campaign trail rhetoric and Muslim Ban executive order served to condition Americans to fear and ‘otherize’ Muslims, we do not see him taking any credible steps to correct these missed opportunities in the immediate future,” said Corey Saylor, with CAIR.
This is compounded by the recent health care bill, which narrowly passed in the House last week, and the revised Refugee and Visa Order, also known as the Muslim ban, which is being debated in court. For advocates, these efforts add to a pattern of attacks on the rights of women, Muslims, transgender people, and other marginalized communities.
While awaiting a ruling on the travel ban, Muslim Advocates said in a statement these court proceedings serve as a critical line of defense to counter a president who “has openly attacked countless individuals simply because of what they look like or where they come from, sought to create divisions based on faith, and has tried to use his power to discriminate against millions of those who live in America.”