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Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Keynote Remarks at the Know Your Neighbor Coalition Event


Washington, DC
United States

Good evening and thank you, Kamau [Marshall], for that very kind introduction.  I also want to thank Congressman [Elijah] Cummings, for inviting me to speak with you, and I want to thank Congressman [Mike] Honda for joining us tonight as well.  My outstanding colleagues – Paul Monteiro, Director of the [Justice Department’s] Community Relations Service, and Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, will speak to you soon.  And I want to thank them for their engaged and energizing leadership on the issues of interfaith collaboration and community engagement.  Just six months ago, all of you came together to launch Know Your Neighbor – an initiative built upon a simple idea and designed to advance some enduring truths about America.  Diversity defines our nation.  Dialogue builds understanding.  And shared bonds of community empower people.  This mission feels particularly urgent tonight as our nation continues to heal from the heinous terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida.

This attack left 49 families with unfathomable grief.  It took the lives of men and women driven to help others and serve their communities: mothers and fathers; sons and daughters; brothers and sisters; dancers and singers; college students and business partners.  It took the life of Antonio Brown, a captain in the Army Reserves who served in Kuwait.  It took the life of Akyra Murray, who had just graduated high school and planned to attend college on a full basketball scholarship.  It took the life of Brenda McCool: a mother of 11 and a grandmother of six; a two-time cancer survivor and, as one relative described her, “a proud and fierce advocate for her LGBT family.”  And it took the life of Cory Connell, a college student who hoped to become a firefighter.  These men and women – and the dozens of others who lost their lives – came to the Pulse nightclub to sing.  They came to dance.  And they came to celebrate life – deeply in love, filled with dreams and energized about the world.

Tonight, as we think about our collective national response – and as we come together for this critical discussion about faith, diversity and community – we can best honor the legacies of those who lost their lives by standing firmly in support of the values that define us as a people.  Together, we can choose love over hate.  Together, we can choose inclusivity over bigotry.  And together, we can choose compassion over intolerance.  As community members, as faith leaders and as government officials, we get the power to ensure that even at a dark hour, America stands as a beacon of light and a land of freedom.

Last December, we came together at the White House for a convening to celebrate our nation’s rich history of religious pluralism and diversity – ideals that represent America at its best, at its brightest and at its strongest.  Of course, throughout American history – from slavery, to segregation, to discrimination – our country has not always embraced freedom and equality for all.  And even today, 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, including Arabs, Sikhs and South Asians.  This discriminatory backlash doesn’t just harm one community.  It violates the defining values of our country.  And so to anyone who feels afraid, targeted or discriminated against because of which religion you practice, what you look like or where you come from, I want you to know this: 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.  And with the FBI now tracking data on hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Arabs, it greatly enhances our ability to understand the problem of hate violence and effectively allocate resources.  Of course, religious discrimination takes many forms.  And we continue to lead a range of enforcement efforts in several areas.  We help ensure that students can attend school without suffering from religion-based harassment and bullying.  We help ensure that employees can go to work and not endure religious discrimination.  And we help ensure that communities around the country can build houses of worship free from unjust and unlawful interference.

But we also know and believe – as you do too – that enforcement alone can’t address the root causes that often lead to religious discrimination: causes that range from misinformation, to intolerance, to bigotry.  To help address these issues, earlier this year we launched a new interagency community engagement initiative designed to promote religious freedom and challenge religious discrimination.  We held six roundtable discussions – with diverse groups of policymakers, advocates, faith leaders and community members – to hear their viewpoints, their concerns and their recommendations.  At each of these discussions – on education, employment, hate violence and religious land use – people of various faiths, people who identify as non-religious and people of many different backgrounds came together to share ideas, to discuss best practices and to engage on the tough issues.  And later this summer, we plan to publish a report detailing what we heard at these roundtables to help drive further dialogue in communities around the country.

When President Obama spoke at the Islamic Society of Baltimore earlier this year, he reminded us: “Our faiths summon us to embrace our common humanity.”  I want to applaud you for your dedication to embracing our common humanity, to empowering our communities and to celebrating our diversity.  And please know that we at the Department of Justice look forward to your continued partnership in this most worthy cause.  Thank you, once again, for the privilege to join you all tonight. 

Civil Rights
Updated September 28, 2016