Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales
Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations
June 5, 2005
It’s an honor to be with you tonight at a time of celebration and commemoration of the Jewish community in America. This is a uniquely wonderful opportunity for this Hispanic-American to experience another culture and another faith that has contributed so greatly to our Nation.
350 years ago this year, 23 men, women and children arrived in what was then called New Amsterdam, not far from where we are tonight, at the South Street Seaport. They were the first Jewish Americans, fleeing persecution in Brazil. They came here, as so many have done and continue to do, to find freedom. And their story is the American story. It is a story of hope. Hard work. Faith. Community. Adversity. Sacrifice. And ultimately, triumph.
Many of us have lived this story. And for immigrants to the United States from all over the world, the example of the Jewish community in America has inspired us and challenged us. Your success reminds us of the importance of education, of the rewards of hard work and entrepreneurship, and of the value of maintaining our culture and our faith even as we embrace being Americans.
My grandparents were Mexican immigrants. I remember visiting them as a very young boy – there was no telephone in their house, no television, no running hot water. My parents, too, had very little formal education. They were migrant workers who never finished elementary school, but they worked hard to educate their children. They had very little, but they gave me a great gift: the confidence that, if given a chance, I too could live the American dream. They raised me to believe that a Mexican-American boy from a poor neighborhood in Texas could be part of the American story, and someday, maybe even contribute a chapter.
There hasn’t been a day these past four and half years – every time I walk into the West Wing or the Oval Office to brief the most powerful person in the world – that I don’t wonder at the gift of opportunity that I have received.
But the American story is not a fairy tale; there are no guarantees of a “happily ever after” ending. The dream and the promise of this Nation have come with great sacrifice – and their defense has called us once again to sacrifice.
September 11 gave all of us – especially those of us in public service – a common purpose. Since the first plane crashed into the North Tower, we have struggled with an enemy of violent extremists; an enemy that is unafraid to use terror to try to intimidate and threaten the United States. I do not believe they intended merely to kill Americans that day. I believe they also intended to kill our spirit; to change the story of America from one of hope to one of fear.
But now, three-and-a-half years later, each day takes us a little bit further from the awful memories of burning buildings, terrified citizens and good-bye phone calls. It is important, of course, that we live our lives as normally as possible. But I worry that the shock, the grief, and the anger we all felt has been diminished by the passage of time. Think about what you felt that day, watching those towers fall, and in the days and weeks that followed. The victims you knew. The pain you shared. Over time, it’s natural that such feelings fade. But we must never allow our commitment to fade.
The threat remains. I see it every morning in the intelligence briefings I receive at the FBI.
At the Department of Justice we are constantly communicating with our partners in the CIA, FBI, and Homeland Security law enforcement to share information in order to keep America safe from further attacks. In my speeches, I repeatedly caution against complacency. Let me assure you that, at the Justice Department, we have not and will not become complacent. The stakes are too high.
But we cannot shoulder this burden alone. We must continue to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to take the fight to our terrorist enemies. One of these critical tools is the USA PATRIOT Act. Over the past few months, I and others at the Department of Justice have testified before Congress about the importance and effectiveness of the authorities granted in this law. Federal prosecutors from around the country have shared stories from the front lines of the Act’s usefulness in the war on terror.
This is all part of our effort to focus on the facts. That’s why we have declassified information about the frequency with which we’ve used some of the authorities in the Act. We have rebutted many charges and exposed many misconceptions. We have focused on the truth, and the truth about the PATRIOT Act is that there has not been one single verified violation of privacy rights or civil liberties in its three-and-a-half year history.
Like all Americans, I cherish our civil liberties. They are at the very heart of what it means to live in freedom. I am committed to preserving them in everything we do at the Department of Justice.
That’s why I’ve tried to keep an open mind in this dialogue. I have been willing to listen to those who have ideas they believe will clarify or strengthen the PATRIOT Act. I am open to suggestions or clarifications. I am open to debate. But what I cannot nor will not accept are changes to our laws that would leave Americans less safe from terrorism and crime.
We can and we will protect our civil liberties and our citizens from terrorism. The two are not mutually exclusive.
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One of our most cherished freedoms – one we’ve sacrificed greatly to defend – is our religious liberty.
Nothing defines us more as a Nation – and differentiates us more from the extremists that are our enemies – than our respect for religious pluralism.
As you know, President Bush believes that government has for too long ignored or impeded the efforts of organizations such as the Orthodox Union and its member groups to provide social services to those in need. We are grateful for all that the Orthodox Union has done to give faith-based groups a seat at the table, including supporting the President’s Faith-Based Initiative.
The Department of Justice has one the federal government’s 10 Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In partnership with caring and compassionate community-based groups, we are linking at-risk teens to mentors, providing drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and helping men and women released from prison re-enter their communities as productive citizens.
Of course, the Department’s work in protecting religious liberty goes far beyond ensuring the right to compete on an equal basis for government funds. The Department is also committed to fighting religious-based discrimination and prosecuting religious-based crimes.
The Orthodox Union was part of the coalition that fought for and won the passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000.
This landmark legislation bars governments from discriminating against houses of worship and religious groups in zoning law. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has primary responsibility for the enforcement of the Act, and in April 2004 we helped win the first federal appeals court case under the law.
As some of you know, the case arose when two Orthodox Jewish congregations in Surfside, Florida rented space above a bank in the city’s commercial district. Surfside’s zoning code permitted private clubs, lodge halls and dance studios in the commercial district, but not houses of worship. When they were threatened with eviction, the two congregations challenged the city’s actions under the Religious Land Use Act.
After a federal trial court ruled in favor of the city, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Alex Acosta joined with plaintiff’s counsel to argue the case on appeal. In April 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the City of Surfside had violated the religious liberties of the two congregations. If the Masons can rent space in the commercial district, the court said, Orthodox Jewish congregations can as well. It was a victory for the right to worship for all religious denominations.
To date, the Department of Justice has opened over fifty preliminary inquiries and 22 formal investigations under the Religious Land Use Act.
In February, we closed an investigation into whether the City of Lyndhurst, Ohio violated the rights of an Orthodox Jewish Synagogue when it denied it a permit to build in a location that was easier for its elderly congregation to walk to. After the Civil Rights Division intervened, the parties were able to reach an agreement that addressed the city’s concerns while allowing the congregation to build on the location it had chosen.
And in April, the Department filed suit under the Religious Land Use Act on behalf of yet another Orthodox Jewish group – the second case ever filed by the Department under the statute. In this case, the City of Hollywood, Florida denied the congregation’s application to operate a synagogue in a residential neighborhood. The complaint alleges that the city routinely permits various houses of worship and nonreligious assemblies to operate in residential neighborhoods. That they have prohibited an Orthodox Jewish congregation from doing the same, we argue, is a violation of the law.
Some have argued that the statute impermissibly singles out religion for protection. We disagree, and have vigorously defended the law's constitutionality at every turn – both as to the land-use portion and the prisoner's rights portion that requires prisons to make accommodations for prisoner’s religious beliefs and practices when consistent with the security demands of operating a prison. And just this past Tuesday, the Supreme Court agreed with the Justice Department's view and held that the prisoner-rights half of the law is well within our Nation's noble tradition of accommodating the religious exercise of its citizens. The Court's reasoning applies with equal force to the land-use half of the law. And we will continue to defend this important law on these grounds whenever challenged.
In addition to enforcing the Religious Land Use Act, the Department of Justice has given a priority to prosecuting other crimes based on racial, ethnic and religious bias.
To give just one example, in May Sean Andrew Sigley was sentenced to 12 months in prison for conspiring with another man to spray swastikas and anti-Jewish messages on pillars and buildings at the Congregation Shaarie Torah Cemetery in Portland, Oregon. Sigley is a self-described white supremacist who admitted that he desecrated the cemetery to intimidate the Jewish residents of the area. Sigley was jointly prosecuted by attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon.
The Department has also actively enforced Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which requires employers to make a reasonable accommodation of employees’ religious needs. Last September we filed suit against the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, alleging that its policy of refusing to reasonably accommodate employees who observe the Sabbath violates Title VII. In our complaint, we cited the example of a Jewish man who was fired from his job as a bus driver-trainee after informing the Transit Authority of his need to observe the Sabbath. And in New York we filed a Title VII suit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the City Transit Authority alleging discrimination against Muslims, Sikhs and other who wear religious head-coverings. According to the complaint, beginning in early 2002, the Transit Authority involuntarily transferred Muslim and Sikh employees who wore head-coverings to less desirable jobs with less contact with the public. Both these cases are still pending, and we will continue to vigorously enforce the prohibition against religious discrimination for all Americans under Title VII.
Two weeks ago, I marked the first 100 days of my tenure as Attorney General with a speech at the National Press Club. I reiterated the Department’s priorities of protecting Americans from terrorism, further reducing violent crime, combating obscenity and human trafficking, and protecting the rights of crime victims. I outlined the progress we have made in each of these areas on behalf of the American people. I told the crowd that we are off to a good start, but it is only a beginning.
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The same thing could be said about the Jewish community in America: After 350 years, you are off to a very strong start, but it is only the beginning of what you will achieve.
Elie Wiesel once said of the first Jewish-Americans: “They came here, chased by persecution, fanaticism, intolerance and meanness. But they managed to transform memories of suffering into an American vision of moral harmony among cultures, religions and society.”
This – in two sentences – is the story of America at its best. A place that turns exile into opportunity, intolerance into tolerance, and suffering into triumph.
Thank you once again for the opportunity to be here tonight. Congratulations to the honorees. Congratulations to the Orthodox Union for 107 years of work on behalf of faith and community. And congratulations to all of you for 350 years of writing the American story and living the American dream. May the next 350 years bring many more chapters written and many more dreams fulfilled.
And may God bless you, may He continue to watch over you and your families, and may He continue to bless the United States of America.