Justice News

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Keynote Remarks at the Hindu American Foundation’s Inaugural Policy Conference
Washington, DC
United States
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Monday, June 20, 2016

Good afternoon and thank you all for that warm welcome.  I want to thank the Hindu American Foundation for inviting me to join you today and I want to commend all of you for organizing, launching and participating in this inaugural policy conference as we discuss some of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.  I know that you all believe – as we do too at the Department of Justice – that through dialogue, through partnerships and through collaboration, we can build inclusive, vibrant and thriving communities around the country.

Our conversation comes at a trying time.  Just eight days ago, we suffered a horrific terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida.  And as we continue to pray for the victims and their families, I want to assure you that – as the Attorney General said many times this past week – the Department of Justice continues to use every resource at its disposal to investigate this appalling attack.  This attack left 49 families with unbearable grief.  It left the city of Orlando in unfathomable pain. 

And yet we also saw courageous law enforcement officers rush towards gun shots and save lives.  We saw people, communities and organizations across America – including the Hindu American Foundation – speak loudly, with resiliency and resolve, to defend, to protect and to comfort our LGBT brothers and sisters.  We saw the people of Orlando reject hate and embrace love.  And we saw community leaders from all walks of life stand firmly in defense of the values that define us a nation and as a people: inclusivity, diversity and freedom.

The Hindu American Foundation’s motto – “promoting dignity, mutual respect and pluralism” – represents the very best traditions of people from many different faiths, beliefs and backgrounds around the country.  A few months ago, while speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, President Obama highlighted precisely this point.  He said, “so often, we focus on our outward differences and we forget how much we share.”  President Obama emphasized that “[o]ur faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity.”  When we take the time to pause and reflect, we can find that spirit of common humanity woven throughout so many different faiths and communities.  In Islam, the Quran teaches: “O, mankind, indeed, we have … made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”  Judaism teaches about “tikkun olam” – to repair the world.  Christianity teaches: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  And in Hinduism, the scripture Maha Upanishad, teaches: “For those who live magnanimously the entire world constitutes but a family.”

Whether we follow one of these religions; whether we worship another faith or whether we consider ourselves non-religious, in this country, our laws protect the rights of all people to live free from violence, discrimination and harassment.  The First Amendment of the Constitution lists religious freedom as the first right.  And today, in the 21st century, with people of many different beliefs calling America home – the values of diversity and pluralism continue to define our national identity.  In my own life – as the daughter of Indian immigrants, as the wife of a Vietnamese refugee and as a longtime civil rights lawyer – I have seen the profound power of our laws to advance America’s promise of equal protection, equal justice and equal opportunity for all.

Of course, throughout American history – from slavery, to segregation, to discrimination – our country has not always embraced freedom and equality for all.  We must not – and no one should try to – sanitize this history or any history of injustice or inequality.  Our children must know the full story so that we can learn from the lessons of history.  Today, as we strive to live up to the promise of our nation’s founding ideals, each of us gets an opportunity to write new chapters in the evolving history of the 21st century.

And as we do so, we must recognize the difficult challenges that lie ahead.  Following recent heinous acts of terrorism over the past year, we see an uptick in discriminatory backlash targeting Muslim communities.  We also see this backlash targeting communities perceived to be Muslim: Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians, including people of the Hindu faith.  This discriminatory backlash doesn’t just harm one community.  It violates the defining values of our country.  As a nation – and as a people – we cannot, and we will not, stay silent when individuals choose to attack or discriminate against any faith or any community.  Together, we must speak out.  And together, we must respond.

President Obama and Attorney General [Loretta E.] Lynch have made this point several times in recent months, but it bears repeating.  To anyone who feels afraid, targeted or discriminated against because of which religion you practice or where you worship, I want to say this – we see you.  We will protect you.  And we will do everything in our power to defend your rights to live free from violence, harassment and discrimination – rights that our Constitution guarantees and rights that form the bedrock of a free, open and inclusive society.

To advance this mission, the Justice Department continues to vigorously prosecute religion-based hate crimes.  We know that effectively prosecuting hate crimes requires robust data.  And over the years, we heard concerns from many communities, including Hindu communities, about the need to collect more specific data regarding hate crimes that target specific populations.  To address these concerns, in 2015, the FBI updated its Hate Crime Data Collection Guidelines and Training Manual, and it now uses separate categories to track hate crimes targeting Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs.  This greatly enhances our ability to understand the problem of hate violence and effectively allocate resources.  In addition, with faith communities reporting violence against houses of worship, we want to ensure you get access to the resources, assistance, guidance and support you need to keep your communities safe.  Last December, the Civil Rights Division participated in a webinar sponsored by FEMA to help prepare houses of worship for emergencies by reviewing available resources.  More than 1,900 clergy and religious community leaders watched the webinar.

To further improve our efforts to combat hate violence, along with our U.S. Attorney partners and the FBI, last year we organized a series of regional hate crimes trainings – 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.  They helped to educate communities and engage them in the process of ensuring public safety.  And they helped to encourage better hate crime reporting and data collection.

We also know that religious discrimination takes many forms, and we continue to aggressively enforce the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, to address unlawful barriers to building places of worship.  As my colleagues heard repeatedly at a roundtable discussion in Detroit last month, we see changes in both the tone and framing of religious discrimination in the land use context.  Today, we do sometimes see overt animus expressed.  But we also see people organizing to try to block construction of minority places of worship often adopting more subtle tactics, focusing on traffic and parking concerns.  Through careful investigation, the Justice Department continues to effectively – and successfully – sort through legitimate concerns about density and traffic and identify those cases where a local government uses these concerns to unlawfully block projects that deserve to go forward.

In another critical area, we continue to address and prevent bullying in our schools.  The Justice Department has taken action in communities around the country – from California, to New York, to Georgia, to Texas – to ensure that all students can attend school free from discrimination, harassment and violence.  To help bolster this work, earlier this year, our Educational Opportunities Section launched a new initiative with our U.S. Attorney colleagues to amplify our efforts to combat religious discrimination in schools and other educational settings.  This initiative will allow us to expand our ability to investigate and remedy complaints; to lead robust community outreach and to develop critical guidance for federal prosecutors.  Of course, despite all of these enforcement efforts, we know how much work remains.  And we cannot do this work effectively without effective outreach to you and other community leaders.

To hear these viewpoints, we recently launched a new interagency community engagement initiative designed to promote religious freedom, challenge religious discrimination and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes.  And we hosted two of these roundtables specifically on the topic of religious discrimination, including bullying and harassment, in our schools.  Representatives from the Hindu American Foundation – along with community members, faith leaders, advocates and other stakeholders from a wide range of backgrounds and perspectives – participated in these roundtables.  And we appreciated the chance to hear from the Hindu American Foundation about your work, including your new report, on understanding, addressing and preventing bullying in our schools.

Many of the issues I spoke about today – from bullying in our schools, to hate violence on our streets – have several causes: from misinformation and stereotypes, to discrimination and bigotry.  And as we search for the answers – we know that beyond enforcement, beyond policy solutions, we also need community engagement.  We need dialogue.  We need conversation: to understand our challenges, to exchange our ideas and to share our best practices.  And to do this work effectively, we need conferences like this one to bring policymakers, advocates and community members into the same room. 

As you participate in your discussions this afternoon, I urge you to ask the tough questions, to tackle the hard issues and to confront the real challenges that exploit differences in our communities.  In so doing, you will help bring our country closer to its founding promise of a land that protects all people.  You will advance the values that define us as a nation.  And day-by-day, you will shape America into a more just and more free union.  Thank you for the privilege to join you today.  I look forward to seeing all that you will achieve – and the efforts you will continue to lead in your communities – in the days ahead. 

Topic(s): 
Civil Rights
Hate Crimes
Component(s): 
Updated August 19, 2016