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The History of American Pluralism

By Vanita Gupta


This speech was delivered at a White House gathering celebrating and protecting “America’s Tradition of Religious Pluralism.” The speaker was Vanita Gupta, the head of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Good afternoon. I want to thank my colleagues at the White House for organizing this important convening and inviting me to speak. It’s a pleasure to join so many distinguished public servants and engaged advocates for today’s critical conversation about our nation’s tradition of religious pluralism.

“George Washington” by Charles Willson Peale

“George Washington” by Charles Willson Peale

I’d like to begin by framing the challenges we face in the context of our national story. In America, our Constitution guarantees all people – regardless of what they look like or where they worship – fundamental fairness and equal justice under the law. That simple but unwavering belief has driven America’s leaders, over generations, to defend and enforce the principles that form the foundation of a tolerant and open society.

Two hundred and twenty five years ago, that belief led President George Washington to assure the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, that the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

It led a poet to describe the enduring American spirit by writing these words, later engraved onto the Statue of Liberty, as a symbol of America’s light that radiates from the shores of Ellis Island: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”

And it led President George W. Bush, in the days of palpable fear after 9/11, to remind the American people that the “terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself,” declaring that, “the enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.”

And, that simple but unwavering belief of equal justice under the law has also shaped my own personal story. As the daughter of Indian immigrants and as the wife of a Vietnamese refugee, my faith in the promising ideals of our country led me to a career in the law. And it continues to guide me today as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the United States of America.

Of course, as President Obama acknowledged earlier this week, America has not always lived up to the promise of its founding ideals. From our engagement in the slave trade, to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the stains on our history remind us of the dangerous consequences that can arise out of fear and bigotry. Even today, in the 21st century, too many people in this country continue to suffer discrimination and violence because of their religious beliefs, with a backlash particularly pronounced following heinous acts of terrorism.

Similar to what we saw after 9/11, in recent weeks following the terrible and tragic attacks in San Bernardino and Paris – and amidst a ratcheting up of divisive rhetoric around religious intolerance – community members and advocates have reported an uptick in hate-related incidents targeting Muslim Americans, as well as those perceived – rightly or wrongly – as being Muslim. We’ve heard from Muslim parents concerned for the safety of their children being bullied in school. And we’ve heard about reports of criminal threats and violence against mosques, children, and adults. We continue to investigate many of these incidents.

This discriminatory backlash not only threatens the millions of Muslims in the United States who peacefully practice their religion. It threatens all of us, because Muslims – like all Americans – work in our local businesses, teach in our schools, compete on our sports teams, and risk their lives in defense of our country. America derives its prosperity, strength, and security from the diversity of its people.

Hate-motivated violence and discrimination deserve no place in civilized society. They also violate our federal civil rights laws. During his first year in office, President Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, providing the Justice Department with additional tools to investigate and prosecute hate crimes, including existing categories of hate crimes based on a person’s actual or perceived religion.

It signaled to the world an enduring commitment to the most fundamental of American values. And it voiced an unwavering belief in the strength of our diversity. Working in close partnership with our U.S. Attorney colleagues, the Civil Rights Division remains committed to vigorously enforcing this law to combat hate-motivated violence. In the aftermath of 9/11, and in response to community member concerns, the Civil Rights Division launched a new initiative to combat discriminatory backlash against Arab, Muslim, Sikh and South-Asian Americans – as well as those individuals perceived to be members of these groups.

As part of this initiative, we focus on ensuring efficient and accessible processes for reporting hate crimes. We strive to implement proactive measures to identify cases involving bias crimes and discrimination that may merit federal action. We lead robust outreach to affected communities. And we work with other components in the Justice Department to ensure accurate referral, effective outreach and comprehensive provision of services to victims of civil rights violations.

And since the unspeakable events of 9/11, the Justice Department has investigated more than 1,000 incidents involving acts of violence, threats, assaults, vandalism and arson targeting against Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South-Asian Americans, as well as individuals perceived to be members of these groups, prosecuting dozens of these cases to the fullest extent of the law. In recent years, we’ve charged and convicted defendants for beating a Sikh cab driver in Washington State, for vandalizing churches in California, for firing a gun at a synagogue in Salt Lake City, and for setting fire to an Islamic Center in Ohio.

In addition to our criminal prosecutions, we continue to engage directly with local communities. With the support of advocates, U.S. Attorneys, the Civil Rights Division, and the FBI organized a series of regional trainings earlier this year – in Mississippi, California, Oregon, Kansas, and Florida. These sessions helped to train local and federal law enforcement in how to recognize, investigate, and prove hate crimes; to educate communities and engage them in the process of ensuring public safety; and to encourage better hate-crime reporting and data collection.

Opposing Religious Discrimination

While hate-motivated violence often reveals discrimination in its most severe form, the Civil Rights Division continues to combat religious discrimination on all fronts. Because of meaningful settlements we negotiated, today Jewish employees can serve the Birmingham, Alabama, Police Department without being forced to work on Shabbat. Students in DeKalb County, Georgia, can learn in school free from religious discrimination and harassment. And communities across the country can build and operate houses of worship free from unjust and unlawful interference.

As recent events have revealed, however, urgent and pressing work remains for public officials and private citizens alike. From non-profits to religious organizations, community leaders of various faiths have joined together to launch an innovative public awareness campaign called Know Your Neighbor. And I want to applaud the spirit of mutual respect and collaboration that they bring to this vital work of community engagement.

Earlier, you also heard from my colleagues across the administration about the efforts we’ve led to combat religious discrimination. And today, we’re going to build on those strides of progress. I’m delighted to stand with all of you to announce a new administration-wide community engagement initiative to ensure we fulfill our nation’s promise of religious freedom.

In the coming months, the Civil Rights Division will partner with other federal agencies – including the Departments of Education, Homeland Security and Labor; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; and within the Justice Department – the FBI and Community Relations Service – to host a series of community roundtables and discussions.

As part of this initiative, we’ll engage with individuals from across the country so that we can better understand how the scourge of religious discrimination continues to undermine opportunity. And we believe these discussions will provide valuable guidance to help inform our efforts in the Civil Rights Division as we continue to combat religious discrimination in the weeks and months ahead.

Combating discrimination based on one’s religion remains fundamental not only to protecting our values but also to defending our freedom. We cannot – and we must not – allow our enemies to define how we live or to dictate how we treat one another. To people in this country of every faith and nationality who feel afraid, threatened or unsafe, please know that with this administration, this President and this Department of Justice – you will never stand alone.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands behind President Johnson as he signs the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. – Photo: Wikipedia, Cecil Stoughton

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stands behind President Johnson as he signs the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. – Photo: Wikipedia, Cecil Stoughton

As Americans, today we face challenging times. And as our nation confronts these issues, each of us as its citizens must renew our efforts to fight discrimination that violates our laws and contradicts our most fundamental values. If we stand united in these efforts – defending diversity over discrimination – there exists no challenge Americans cannot overcome.

When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law – a landmark statute that we continue to enforce each day at the Civil Rights Division – he reminded the American people about the ongoing and ever-changing quest to bring our nation closer to its founding values. “Those who founded our country,” he said, “knew that freedom would be secure only if each generation fought to renew and enlarge its meaning.”

As we confront the civil rights challenges of our time and our generation, let us together renew our nation’s meaning of religious freedom in the 21st century. Let us rededicate our collective action to always respect the dignity and value of every person without question. And let us bring America ever closer to the founding vision of a land protected by justice, anchored in fairness and filled with opportunity for all its people.