In a meeting with community leaders at the White House this morning, the Justice Department issued its final report from “Combating Religious Discrimination Today,” an interagency community engagement initiative we launched in March to promote religious freedom, challenge religious discrimination and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes.
Across the federal government, we believe that robust and proactive enforcement of our civil rights laws requires meaningful and substantial engagement with communities. From March through June – in collaboration with our outstanding U.S. Attorney colleagues and federal agency partners – we held seven roundtables in six cities to learn firsthand about religious discrimination in our communities and to solicit feedback from faith leaders, civil rights advocates and community members about how we in the federal government can address these issues.
The report we released today provides an overview of what we found. It addresses the overarching themes – in terms of the challenges highlighted, the trends identified and the proposals shared – across four key issue areas where we know religious discrimination continues to be a significant problem: education, hate crimes, employment and land use.
In education, we heard that while we need to recognize the constitutional limitations on teaching about religion in schools, we also need to make sure that students learn about diverse religious communities. In employment, we heard that both employers and employees – including people of various faiths and people who identify as non-religious – lack awareness about how our civil rights laws provide faith-based protections in the workplace. To combat hate violence, we heard that as houses of worship face an uptick in attacks, communities need more resources and support to keep their congregants safe. And in land use, we heard how municipalities simply don’t know enough about the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and how it applies, especially in situations where it conflicts with state or local laws.
Across all of these areas, we heard people from different backgrounds and perspectives say that the federal government – through outreach, guidance and communication – needs to do more to make the protections of our laws a reality for all. Of course, we didn’t just organize these roundtables to hear about problems. We also wanted to craft solutions.
Back in March, I joined U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman of the District of New Jersey in announcing a new enforcement initiative where the Civil Rights Division will partner with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices across the country to strengthen our ability to address religious discrimination in schools. Today the division is updating its website to ensure communities know about our work to combat hate violence and enforce laws such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. And today we also published an update on our RLUIPA enforcement in a new report that highlights some critical trends. To note just one key finding, from 2000–2010, 15 percent of our land use investigations involved Muslim communities; during the past six years, 38 percent of them have. We continue to take steps to educate municipal leaders about their obligations under RLUIPA and we look forward to announcing more resources across all these areas in the coming months.
Beyond the policy ideas, at every single roundtable we also saw firsthand another critical tool to protecting religious diversity and combating religious discrimination – dialogue: dialogue that brings people out of their corners and helps drive real reform. Imagine that kind of dialogue taking place beyond the roundtables, in cities and towns across America. Imagine people from different walks of life; different faiths and different backgrounds taking the time to understand each other, to hear one another out – with dignity, decency and respect.
We hope that this initiative and report can help continue to spur that kind of rich and robust dialogue. As we discussed this morning, today doesn’t mark the end of our work on this initiative. Fulfilling the promise of our founding ideals doesn’t happen in one month or one year. It requires ongoing effort and impactful solutions in the always demanding, ever-evolving work of building safe, vibrant and inclusive communities around the country.