Skip to main content

Head of the Civil Rights Division Vanita Gupta Delivers Remarks at Muslim Advocates Annual Gala


Millbrae, CA
United States

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good evening and thank you Aaliya [Yaqub], for your kind introduction.  I want to thank Farhana [Khera] for her inspiring words and for her bold leadership in the field of civil rights and the pursuit of justice.  I also want to thank all of you for joining us here tonight.  And of course, I want to especially thank Muslim Advocates for the privilege to accept this distinguished award named after one of our country’s most transformative figures, Justice Thurgood Marshall.  I do so on behalf of my colleagues at the Civil Rights Division who work tirelessly to advance our mission of equal justice, equal opportunity and fundamental fairness for all.

Muslim Advocates serves as a critical voice and partner in protecting and advancing the civil rights of all people in this country.  You carry out your mission of “promoting freedom and justice for all” with passion and resolve.  You use the law to fight discrimination and ensure equality.  And in doing so, your steadfast efforts not only support the Muslim community.  You protect people of every faith.  And you bring us – as a nation and as a people – closer to our founding ideals of equality and justice for all. 

I am deeply honored to accept an award named after Justice Thurgood Marshall.  Justice Marshall taught us one of America’s most inspiring stories about our fight for equality.  The great-grandson of a slave, Justice Marshall and his family lived through what Dr. King called America’s “long night of racial injustice.”  As Justice Marshall himself would later recount, he and others in the legal profession turned to the law – an institution that once “declared [the African-American] a chattel of his master” and sanctioned segregation – to secure freedom, to advance equality and to safeguard justice.  Faced with an America permeated by bigotry, Justice Marshall imagined a land defined by inclusivity.  From the days when he founded the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the same civil rights organization where I started my legal career, to his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Marshall devoted his life to serving his country; to making it a more perfect, more free and more just union.

More than two decades after Justice Marshall’s passing, right here in the 21st century, we can see how our generation’s own story of progress hangs in the balance.  Because even with landmark laws passed and Supreme Court rulings on the books – despite all the progress we’ve achieved since that “long night of racial injustice” – today we still see a real gap between what the law guarantees on one hand, and what people experience on the other.  And we see how this gap continues to harm some of the most vulnerable among us, including people trapped by poverty, communities of color, LGBTI individuals and diverse religious communities.

In the Civil Rights Division, we work tirelessly to close this gap by enforcing the law to ensure that all people in this country can feel safe, supported and free.  Closing this gap means combating the criminalization of poverty – so that the size of one’s wallet doesn’t determine how much access to justice one has.  It means vigorously enforcing the Voting Rights Act, so that the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people,” remains a reality for all.  It means defending the rights of LGBTI men and women to receive the protection our laws guarantee and the dignity they deserve.  It means working to reform local police departments engaged in unconstitutional practices – and leading tough, complex conversations about the use of force, racial justice and community-police trust to make officers and civilians safer for generations to come.  And it means protecting diverse religious communities, including the Muslim community, from a backlash of hate violence, discrimination and harassment following recent heinous acts of terrorism.

Today, the Muslim community faces trying times.  Amidst a ratcheting up of divisive rhetoric, we see criminal threats against mosques; harassment in schools; and violence targeting Muslim Americans and individuals perceived to be Muslim.  This discriminatory backlash doesn’t just harm the Muslim community.  It violates the defining values of our country.  And it threatens all of us who call America home.  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] 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 hear you.  And we stand with you.  If you ever feel that somehow you don’t belong, or don’t fit in, here in America, let me reassure you – you belong.  And we will 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.  To highlight just some of our recent prosecutions, we convicted a Connecticut man for firing a high-powered rifle at a mosque.  We convicted a Florida man for threatening to firebomb two mosques and shoot their congregants.  We convicted a former Missouri man for leading a conspiracy to deface a local Islamic Center with graffiti and burn two copies of the Qur’an.  We convicted a Missouri man for the arson of a local mosque and two attempted arsons of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

And just this past Friday, we convicted a North Carolina man for using force against a Muslim woman to obstruct her free exercise of religion on an airplane.  He walked up to the woman in the middle of the flight and told her to take off her hijab, saying something to the effect of “Take it off! This is America!”  The defendant then pulled the hijab all the way off, leaving the woman’s entire head exposed.  As these cases demonstrate, when individuals commit religion-based hate crimes, we will continue to hold them accountable for their actions.

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.  And we’ve noticed a significant increase in the number of cases involving Muslim communities.  Since 2010, roughly 40 percent of the Justice Department’s RLUIPA land use investigations have involved mosques or Muslim schools, compared to 15 percent from the 10 years prior.

In another critical area, we continue to address and prevent bullying in our schools.  The Justice Department has taken action around the country to ensure that all students can attend school free from discrimination, harassment and violence.  In part because of our efforts, today, Muslim students in Lewisville, Texas, can pray together during their lunch period.  Christian students in Bakersfield City, California, can observe Ash Wednesday without fearing an unexcused absence.  Jewish students in Pine Bush, New York, can walk the halls, ride the bus and sit in class without enduring anti-Semitic bullying and intimidation.  And Sikh students in DeKalb County, Georgia, can wear a turban to school without their classmates calling them repulsive and hurtful names like “terrorist” and “Aladdin.”

Of course, despite all of these enforcement efforts, we know how much work remains.  And we cannot do this work effectively without 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.  Tomorrow, we’ll host our fifth roundtable in the series at Stanford Law School to address bullying and religious discrimination in schools.  At these roundtables, and at so many other events around the country, our U.S. Attorney colleagues continue to serve as critical partners, bold leaders and strong voices in our collective efforts to combat religious discrimination.  Their engagement with the communities they serve helps facilitate dialogue, strengthen trust, and as a result, advance public safety.

I want to close tonight by telling you one final story about discrimination – not from the Justice Department, but from my own life.  As a four-year-old child, I remember sitting in a McDonald’s in London one day with my family.  And as I sat there eating my meal, along with my mother, sister and grandmother, a group of skinheads began to shout ethnic slurs, throwing fries at us until we left the restaurant.  I don’t remember much about life as a four year old.  But I do remember that day.  And I remember it vividly – as a real image of bigotry in a diverse world.  This story may sound familiar to some of you.  Perhaps it resonates in some way to a similar moment in your life.  But even if it does not – and regardless of one’s racial or ethnic background – many of us can relate to that feeling of people staring at us, or speaking to us, like somehow we don’t belong in our community, like somehow we just don’t fit in.  And we know all too well the dangerous consequences that occur when others try to exploit differences with discrimination.

Our shared history – as Americans and as citizens of the world – teaches us that when faced with injustice and discrimination, no matter what form it takes, we must speak out.  We must stand up.  And we must act to protect the rights of others.  When we do that, together we can build an America that we all want and deserve – an America that promotes inclusion, embraces diversity and safeguards justice.  Throughout our history – even in the most trying times and most daunting circumstances – courageous men and women like Thurgood Marshall helped build that America; they helped shape our America into a land filled with freedom, governed by justice and guided by fairness.

So tonight, as I accept this inspiring award named in his honor, I pledge to you that the Department of Justice will continue to do everything we can to make the promise of our nation’s laws and ideals a reality for all people.  And I look forward to your vital partnership in this noble effort and worthy mission.  Thank you very much. 

Civil Rights
Hate Crimes
Updated September 28, 2016