Persecution Complex: It's Enshrined in the First Amendment, but Religious Freedom Is a Principle Some Croups Still Have to Fight For

By Jones, Sarah E. | Church & State, February 2015 | Go to article overview

Persecution Complex: It's Enshrined in the First Amendment, but Religious Freedom Is a Principle Some Croups Still Have to Fight For


Jones, Sarah E., Church & State


In his book Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously observed, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Jefferson referred not just to his personal views, but to the nascent state of Virginia's approach to religious liberty, which would be codified just a few short years later in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

That statute freed Virginians from being forced to support religious groups against their will and guaranteed all the right to affiliate with the group of their choice. Under it, "all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. " If the sentiment sounds familiar, that's because this statute became the model for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and shaped our nation's legal approach to religious liberty. The Founding Fathers never intended for religious affiliation to impede an individual's rights.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and the data is in: The United States has achieved an unprecedented level of religious diversity. But despite this trend and a historical guarantee of free religious expression, many Americans still experience discrimination on the basis of their religious affiliation--or lack thereof.

But despite all of the carping you hear from Religious Right activists these days about "persecution," it isn't conservative Christians who are bearing the brunt of this. Their rights are secure. For religious minorities and nonbelievers, it can be a different story.

Several states across the country still boast archaic laws banning atheists from holding public office. These laws, which were the subject of a recent New York Times article, aren't enforceable but remain on the books, a stark reminder of days of bigotry gone by.

Sometimes, discrimination takes a more violent turn: The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that 17.4 percent of all hate crimes committed in 2013 occurred due to religious bias.

Visible religious minorities are particularly vulnerable. The FBI's data shows that Jews and Muslims, who often wear religious garb, consistently rank as the two most frequently targeted religious groups.

The FBI, of course, focuses on criminal activity alone. But there are subtler forms of religious persecution in America. Employment discrimination, violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and other First Amendment violations also contribute to the marginalization of a particular belief group--and both, critics say, threaten Jefferson's vision of religious liberty.

Prisoners--the "institutionalized persons" RLUIPA is designed to protect--often bear the brunt of religious persecution, but it's rare for Christian inmates to have problems behind bars. Indeed, some prisons and jails even sponsor programs designed to convert inmates to fundamentalism in the hopes they'll go straight.

Inmates who belong to non-Christian faiths or who have atheistic beliefs often have a tougher time. According to established legal precedent, prisoners are entitled to certain religious accommodations while incarcerated. That includes the ability to access religious literature, participate in religious services, join in small groups and adhere to a religious diet.

These accommodations are still subject to restrictions based on the prison's security requirements and the practicalities of providing special services (like kosher or halal food) to inmates. But First Amendment advocates say that prisons can take an unconstitutionally hard line on inmate religious expression, especially when the inmate belongs to a minority belief tradition.

The U.S. Supreme Court is currently examining this issue in a case from Arkansas concerning a Muslim inmate who is seeking the right to grow a short beard for religious reasons. …

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