America is a diverse place religiously. The Pew Forum on Public Life conducted a survey in 2007 on religion in America. They interviewed 35,000 persons over the age of 18. Among the facts brought out is that 78.4% of Americans self-identify as being Christian. (As defined by the Pew Forum, this includes Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Others.) Jews represent 1.7% of those surveyed. Buddhists represent 0.7% of the population. Muslims represent 0.6% of the population. Other faiths represent 1.7% of those surveyed. Those who identified themselves as unaffiliated (including atheists and agnostics) were 16.1% and those who refused to answer were 0.8%. (Due to rounding, the figures above may not total 100%.) The report breaks things down in far greater detail than shown above.
America has many traditions. Perhaps no tradition goes back further than the persecution of those who are seen as falling outside the religious norm of the community. Thankfully, we also have a long tradition of legislating against our natural inclinations to persecute minorities. Many of us have learned to be more tolerant of others, but religious discrimination continues to exist. While the majority of reported religiously motivated hate crimes are directed against Jews, since September 11, 2001 there has been a huge increase in the number of reported hate crimes against both Muslims and Sikhs. (Of course, not all crimes are reported and not all crimes which could be identified as hate crimes are labeled as such.)
The individual colonies which became the United States were founded in large part by people seeking to escape religious persecution. This does not mean that these people wanted to grant others the same freedoms they sought. In fact, While the Massachusetts Bay colony’s founding populace of Puritans had faced state persecution in 17th-century England, they were incredibly intolerant of other religions. Their intolerance led to the establishment of the Rhode Island Colony where the oldest synagogue in North America was built in 1763.
The first law guaranteeing protection from religious persecution in the colonies was passed in Maryland in 1649. The Act of Toleration stated that no person “professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from henceforth be in anyways troubled, molested or discountenanced [turned away]” for his personal religious beliefs. Of course, it would be some time before those professing other faiths would be offered similar protections.
The first amendment to the United States Constitution says,”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University-San Bernadino has data indicating that the majority of hate crimes, nearly four in 10, involved property damage and vandalism. Nearly three in 10 involved intimidation of an individual. A full three in 10 were assaults.While legislation cannot change attitudes, it can serve to deter some people who would act on their beliefs.Still, the issue is not about creating greater penalties for those commit hate crimes. The goal should be to offer education to law enforcement and society about the discrimination that exists today.
Education is the solution for most of us. While America is religiously diverse, there are many people who may have never met a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Sikh or a Jew. The things that make the news are not the norm. The people who commit act of hate and terror are not the norm. If we want to understand what it means to be an adherent to any faith, we need to begin with our local houses of worship. If you want to understand what Episcopalians believe, you should go to one of their churches and ask questions. If you want to understand what a Muslim believes, go to a Mosque and ask questions.
When we do not understand a thing, it looms large and frightening in our imagination. It is time for us to educate ourselves. The Muslims, Buddhists, Wiccans, Lutherans, Jews, Unitarians, Native Americans, Sikhs, Voodoo practitioners, Atheists, Mormons, Catholics, Agnostics, and Baptists who live down the street are not out to get you. They just want to be part of the community and to live their lives. Maybe if we got to know each other a little better, we would not need all those laws.Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” There is more to it, of course, but before any other freedom was spelled out, our founders guaranteed freedom from having the government force a religion on us, and the right to freely worship as we feel drawn. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he stated it was the purpose of the First Amendment to build ”a wall of separation between Church and State.” The Supreme Court has used that letter as an aid in understanding the intent of the Founding Fathers when writing the Constitution.
The protection of religious expression has been slowly expanded. Native Americans had restrictions placed on their religious ceremonies until 1934. At that time the Indian Reorganization Act was Adopted. Then in 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) which states, “It shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express and exercise the traditional religions … including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.”
Pew Forum on Religion In America – http://religions.pewforum.org/reports#
Native American Religious Freedom – http://www.nativeweb.org/pages/legal/intolerance.html
Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism – http://rac.org/Articles/index.cfm?id=21419&pge_prg_id=12793&pge_id=2416Maryland and Religious Freedom: No Christen Shall Be Troubled or Molestedhttp://www.suite101.com/content/maryland-and-religious-freedom—a3858#ixzz0zQROTD2R