Washington, D.C. ~ Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Good morning. It’s a pleasure to join all of you for this important conference. I’d like to thank Dean [Paul] Schiff Berman and the George Washington University Law School community for hosting us today. Since its founding, the GW Law School has stood in the best tradition of intellectual inquiry – exploring the most pressing legal questions of our times – and this conference is no exception.
I’d also like to thank Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Perez, and all of my dedicated colleagues in the Department of Justice who work every day to protect the rights of all Americans and to combat racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination.
The search for freedom from religious persecution brought many of the earliest settlers to America – the French Huegenots, and later the Pilgrims and Puritans. As a result, the framers enshrined the principle of religious freedom in the First Amendment. The principle of human equality – described in the Declaration of Independence as “self-evident” – was equally, if not more, significant in the founding of our nation. Recognizing the importance of both equality and religious liberty, in 1785, James Madison described America with pride as “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.”
Since Madison’s time, the promise of equality and religious freedom has brought people of all faiths and backgrounds to America. We have not always succeeded in living up to that promise, and religious and ethnic discrimination has a long history in this country. Yet the story of America has been the story of our continuing effort to ensure that each of us in this country – regardless of our race, color, or national origin – has the chance to enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America’s diversity is one of its great strengths. That diversity, and the emphasis the founders placed on religious liberty from the very beginning created the space for public discourse about matters of faith and conscience that has made us a stronger, better, and more moral, nation. The freedom to communicate with each other about right and wrong, and our most firmly held beliefs – regardless of the faith we practice or whether we observe any religion at all – is one of our most precious national treasures.
This American tradition of public debate and discourse has made it possible for people from all parts o the world and many faiths to become one nation. Whether it is the Koran’s reminder to “never let hatred of anyone lead you into the sin of deviating from justice” [Quran 5:8], or Deuternomy’s command that “justice, justice shall you pursue,” [Deut. 16:20] we have much to learn from one another, and we have more in common than we have differences.
At times in our history, that same public discourse has been marred by intolerance and discrimination. But our protection of both the religious freedom and the discourse about religion not only helps to bring us through those times, it also helps to strengthen our shared values that we have in this country and develop a national consensus that rejects prejudice and discrimination.
As we look back ten years later, we realize that the tragedy of September 11, 2001 changed America in ways we could never have imagined. Every American, and most of the world, was touched by that day. Each of us was shaken by the terrible loss of life and the unspeakable cruelty and senselessness of the destruction. 9/11 caused us to redouble our efforts to preserve national security, and to make changes that now, ten years later, have become routine. In the face of those changes, we have proven over and over the enduring resilience and optimism of this nation and of the American people.
Unfortunately, one of the many, tragic legacies of 9/11 has been an increase in prejudice, discrimination and hatred directed against persons of the Muslim and Sikh faiths and those who are, or who are mistakenly believed to be, of Arab or South Asian descent. Some have wrongly sought to blame the horror of 9/11 on Arab-American, Muslim American, Sikh-American and South Asian American communities. It has led to attacks against places of worship and other hate crimes, to job discrimination, and to the tragic harassment of children in our schools. This kind of stereotyping and hate runs counter to the basic values of equality and religious liberty on which this nation is founded.
We must reject any suggestion that every Muslim is a terrorist or that every terrorist is a Muslim. As we have seen time and again – from Oklahoma City to the recent attacks in Oslo, Norway – no religion or ethnicity has a monopoly on terror.
The Department of Justice takes seriously its role in enforcing the laws that protect people against such discrimination, and it moved early to respond to this crisis. Soon after 9/11, President Bush made clear to the nation that these terrorist acts were committed by individuals who distort the peaceful religion of Islam, and that Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans suffered with all Americans when our nation was attacked. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, the Civil Rights Division – led by then Assistant Attorney General Ralph Boyd, who will be addressing the conference shortly – established an initiative to combat discrimination occurring in misguided retaliation for 9/11, which has also been called post-9/11 backlash discrimination. That initiative continues today.
The Department has also taken strong action against hate crimes in the post 9/11 era. The crimes and the resulting prosecutions have taken place in nearly every part of the country. To name just a few examples, the Department successfully prosecuted an Arlington, Texas man for setting fire to playground equipment at a mosque in July 2010. We brought to justice three men who spray painted swastikas and “white power” on a mosque in Columbia, Tennessee, and then burned it beyond recognition. In March 2010, a husband and wife were convicted of harassing with ethnic slurs and assaulting an Indian-American couple on a public beach in South Lake Tahoe; the male victim was beaten so badly that he suffered multiple broken bones in his face. And earlier this year, a former employee of the Transportation Security Administration pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges for assaulting an elderly Somali man in May 2010 because of the man’s race, national origin and religion.
The Department also has committed itself to protecting the rights of Americans of all faiths to build places of worship and to worship in peace. Last October, for example, the Department filed an amicus brief in support of a mosque in Murfreesboro, Tennessee that had been met with strong community opposition and a lawsuit. In doing so, the Department sought to unequivocally convey its position that a mosque, or a for that matter, is a place of worship to be treated the same as a church, synagogue, or any other religious assembly and entitled to full protection by federal law.
In the post-9/11 era, the Department is also working to ensure that Americans are not forced to decide between their faith and their jobs. We brought suit against the New York City MTA over its refusal to permit Muslim and Sikh bus and subway drivers to wear religious headcoverings on the job and settled a case involving a Muslim correction worker in Essex County, N.J., who had been fired for refusing to remove her headscarf.
The Department has also investigated many cases of harassment of Muslim students. The Department reached a settlement in a case in Cape Henlopen, Delaware in which a teacher singled out an elementary student because she was Muslim, leading to severe harassment by other students. The Department reached a settlement with a Texas school district to allow Muslim students to pray together at lunchtime in a room in which other students were permitted to gather for various nonreligious uses.
Ensuring the rule of law and protecting civil rights in the post-9/11 era is a focus not only for the Civil Rights Division, but for the entire Department. In the past ten years, the Department has done a great deal in this regard, and while those efforts have not been perfect, we continue to learn how to better fulfill that role. Attorney General Holder has led the Department in its efforts to engage with Muslim and Arab communities . He has met with religious leaders from a variety of faiths – including some of you here today – to discuss how the Department of Justice and faith communities could work together to reduce incidents of violence, intimidation, and discrimination in this post-9/11 era. He has spoken on several occasions with Muslim and Arab American organizations about issues important to the communities they serve. And the Civil Rights Division regularly hosts leaders from the Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities and representatives of numerous government agencies to discuss emerging issues.
Likewise, throughout the country, the United States Attorneys’ Offices are actively working to increase their outreach and dialogue with these communities. This engagement helps members of these communities understand both the Department’s role and their rights under federal law.
As a conflict resolution and emergency response agency, the Department’s Community Relations Service, or CRS, began engaging early at the community level after 9/11. In this Administration, CRS has increased its services in response to requests from governments and community leaders, for assistance to address tension, prevent hate crimes against Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities, and put a stop to the bullying of children because of their religion or ethnicity.
In addition, the FBI conducts a number of programs and efforts, often with other Departmental components, to educate communities on the FBI’s role and to respond to their questions and concerns.
All of these efforts will help build the mutual trust and respect between the Department and these communities that is essential to good law enforcement.
We also are working comprehensively to ensure that every aspect of the Department’s work reflects sensitivity and respect for all peoples and faiths. As just one example, to that end, I recently directed all components of the Department of Justice to re-evaluate their training efforts in a range of areas, from community outreach to national security. Other examples include the efforts of all law enforcement to ensure that our interactions with the community – whether in responding to an attack on a mosque or arresting a suspect in a counter-terrorism investigation – convey a sense of basic respect for the rule of law and the rights of all who have made this nation their home.
The Department of Justice is doing everything possible to protect the national security and to keep America safe from those who would do us harm. We will never waiver in that commitment. But we are also fully and completely committed to protecting civil rights and civil liberties. Those two critical goals are not inconsistent. While it might seem easier to focus only on national security without regard for civil rights or the Constitution, or to protect civil rights and civil liberties while ignoring national security, the Department of Justice can, must and will do both.
Today, you will be discussing what has happened over the past ten years and what can be done to ensure that in the future, the topic of this conference will seem out-of-date, even obsolete. I hope, as all of you do, that on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, there will be no reason to speak of a discriminatory backlash, because there will be none to speak of. When that happens, it will be because of the thoughtful work, energy, and focus that so many of you here today have dedicated to this effort. In the meantime, I’m honored to work with you and my colleagues at the Department of Justice in the effort to fully realize America’s highest ideals of religious tolerance, equality, and justice for all.