Muslim-Americans “continue to struggle for acceptance in many communities” and “have not yet realized the full promise of equal opportunity and equal justice” the government’s top civil rights official, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez, said Tuesday.
Speaking at an event on Capitol Hill marking the 10th anniversary of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, Perez’s comments came in the midst of the heated debate over the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan and of mosque construction projects around the country.
“The timing if this anniversary is auspicious, as it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the values of our nation and the protection of our basic rights at a time when the national conversation about these issues has produced a great amount of heated rhetoric,” Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez said at the event hosted by the American Constitution Society.
Religious freedom and civil rights “are not Democratic or Republican values - they are American values; they are at the very core of our nation’s existence,” Perez said.
“We see whether its manifested very overtly through these acts of violence or in other ways through the defacement of property or hateful rhetoric or in subtle fashions — discriminatory land uses and zoning policies, barriers to religious liberties are a threat to our freedom and to our nation’s identity,” he added.
Perez mentioned that a “very eclectic” group of various religious representatives met with Attorney General Eric Holder to discuss “very, very, troubling incidents” that have taken place in recent months.
The Obama administration is “absolutely dogged” in its commitment to using every tool to protect religious liberty, Perez said.
DOJ began monitoring almost as many alleged incidents of discrimination against Muslims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in the past five months as it has in nearly 10 years prior, according to a report issued Tuesday.
In a panel following Perez’s speech on RLUIPA, one lawyer said that local townships are getting more savvy about masking their anti-Muslim views and asserting that their opposition is about logistical issues.
“There certainly is a rise in those cases,” Roman Storzer, a partner at Storzer & Greene, said in response to a question from TPMMuckraker. “Often times, the religious organization will back down after they realize they’re not wanted in the community - that applies to a variety of minority faith groups.”
But the actual number of times such cases are litigated in court — a process which can stretch out over a number of years — is probably at the same low level as it is with any faith or denomination, Storzer said.
“All the incidences I’ve seen involved involve hostility and discrimination against that particular faith group,” Storzer said. “There’s the fig leaf of some sort of neutral or generally applicable land use interest, but everybody knows what that regulation is all about.”
But Marci Hamilton said that the law is unfair to local governments and homeowners, who have been labeled bigots even when debates are over issues like parking and traffic.
Perez’s comments opening the panel discussion marked the second time he has addressed the recent flare up in anti-Muslim incidents in the past few weeks.
“For members of our nation’s Arab-American and Muslim-American communities, who have been subjected to an unjustified backlash - a backlash that continues today, nearly a decade after 9/11, as we’ve seen in recent weeks in communities across the country - our nation’s promise has not yet been fulfilled,” Perez said in a speech last week.
Polarized politics are standing in the way of continued progress, and “it often seems that many of our lawmakers have given up the art of compromise in favor of mastering the partisan sound-bite,” Perez said. “The prospect of long-term progress, too often, has been abandoned in an effort to dominate the 24 hour news cycle.”