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UNITED NATIONS REPORT ON

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN THE U.S.

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The Special Rapporteur:

Mr. Abdelfattah Amor is an Special Rapporteur, in the field of religious freedom and tolerance. His appointment was created by a United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution #1998/18. He functions independently, within the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. One of his tasks is to visit member states of the U.N., assess their degree of religious freedom and tolerance, and write reports on his findings. He has visited Australia, China, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan on previous trips. 

From 1998-JAN-22 to FEB-6, he visited the U.S., visiting Washington, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and both Phoenix and Black Mesa in Arizona. He visited with the State Department, Department of Justice, Office of Non-Public Education, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Equal Employment Opportunity Council and the U.S. Supreme Court. A few meetings were held with State agencies, human rights committees, hate crime committees, human rights and religious freedom non-government organizations, and representatives of "most religions and beliefs." He met with representatives of most religious groups with more than 200,000 members in the U.S., including "Native Americans, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Baha'is, Scientologists, and atheists." He did not meet with at least two large religious groups: Santerians and Neopagans. [Author's note: This oversight is regrettable, because Neopagans who are open with their faith (particularly Wiccans) are probably the most heavily oppressed group, per capita, in the country.] 

He reported interference by international officials of the U.N. -- the first time that he had experienced obstacles in any of his investigative trips. 

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Legal guarantees of religious freedom in the U.S.

He reported that the main texts guaranteeing religious freedom is the U.S. Constitution, namely:

bulletArticle VI which prohibits religious tests for any office or public trust, and
bulletThe 1st Amendment which guarantees the free exercise of religion and prohibits the establishment of religion.

His report included an analysis of various federal and state legislation and court decisions that:

bulletprotected religious freedom, 
bulletoppressed specific faith groups, 
bulletacted to separate church and state.

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Experience of minority faith groups

bulletIslam: Muslims in the U.S. consist primarily of African-Americans who have organized the Black Muslim community, and the "oriental" Muslim community established primarily by immigrants from Bangladesh, India, Lebanon, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Syria. Muslim representatives reported a satisfactory level of religious freedom in the U.S. However, they also described a form of "islamophobia" in the U.S., largely driven from a biased media. They feel that the U.S. population has little knowledge of Islam. They reported "Acts of vandalism against mosques and Muslims' private property, verbal and physical attacks, discrimination in the field of employment, particularly as regards respect for religious practices, and above all against women wearing "Islamic" dress (the hijab), isolated acts of intolerance by public employees, such as the teacher in South Carolina who called on people to 'kill Muslims'."
bulletJudaism: Jewish delegations report that religious freedom and separation of church and state which are guaranteed by the 1st Amendment have encouraged a "thriving religious life within the Jewish community". However, almost 80% of the 1,400 religion-motivated hate crimes tabulated by the FBI were against Jews. They commented on the need for laws similar to the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that was recently declared unconstitutional. They also support laws guaranteeing religious freedom in the workplace. 
bulletNative American Spirituality:  Mr. Abdelfattah Amor reported that Natives "are without any doubt the community facing the most problematical situation, one inherited from a past of denial of their religious identity, in particular through a policy of assimilation, which most Native Americans insist on calling genocide (physical liquidation, religious conversion, attempts to destroy their traditional way of life, laying waste of land, etc.)." Native Americans who follow traditional faiths frequently have their religious practices severely restricted within prisons. Natives also experience unique problems, including:
bullettheir faith requires them to access specific locations of the country. This is often denied by landowners, including the federal government. In other areas, these sacred sites have been destroyed by economic projects.
bulletEagle feathers play an important role in some tribes. This conflicts with federal legislation protecting that species.
bulletThey are often refused the return of the remains of their ancestors.
bulletOther religions: Mr. Abdelfattah Amor reported that "In general, it appears that the situation of minority communities in the field of religion and belief is satisfactory." This includes diverse faith groups which have suffered from intolerance and discrimination in the past: e.g. Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Scientology and such minority denominations within Christianity as the Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons and the Seventh Day Adventists

However, there are some problems areas:
bulletWorkplace discrimination. e.g. 
bulletDismissals and lack of respect  for religious practices -- particularly with Seventh Day Adventists;
bulletProblems with religious attire -- particularly among Sikhs.
bulletObtaining permits for religious buildings (particularly for Buddhists, Hare Krishna, Hindus, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Mormons.
bullet"Isolated attacks on religious buildings."

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Conclusions and recommendations:

Mr. Abdelfattah Amor found that:

bulletOverall, the country is "free and open to all religions and beliefs...the actual situation in the United States in the field of tolerance and non-discrimination is in general satisfactory."
bulletThe clauses of the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "constitute fundamental guarantees for the protection of religion and belief." However, the freedom and establishment clauses are fundamentally in conflict. Various interpretations by the courts have created problems.
bulletLaws concerning religious practice in the workplace need strengthening. 
bulletRatification of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child would be beneficial. (It has been ratified by every country in the world that has a national government, except for the U.S.)
bulletEducation should play a greater role in teaching tolerance and non-discrimination in the field of religion and belief.
bulletSome problem areas are:
bulletIslam: There exists "an islamophobia reflecting both racial and religious intolerance." The main cause is a heavily biased media. The solution is education, both in schools and in local inter-religious councils.
bulletNative Americans: Past Government programs of Native assimilation into mainline society continue to have adverse effects. Although there have been some new laws passed to protect Native spirituality, they have serious shortcomings. Rights of Native prisoners need to be strengthened.
bulletMedia: Campaigns are needed to train the media in religious tolerance and knowledge.
bulletInter-religious dialog: This exists in some areas of the country, but needs to become more widespread.

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Reference:

  1. Abdelfattah Amor, "CIVIL AND POLITICAL RIGHTS, INCLUDING: FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION, Addendum, Visit to the United States of America," United Nations document E/CN.4/1999/58/Add.1, 1998-DEC-9. The full text of the document is available online at: http://www.solcommunications.com/bigmountain/

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