Religious Rights of Minorities in the US: UN Expert Calls for Repeal of Laws undermining minorities’ rights to worship (Updated 2021)

Minority groups have been commonly mistaken or associated with a numerical minority but larger groups can also be considered minorities due to their inherent lack of power despite a major stronghold in quantity. This lack of power is the predominant characteristic of a minority group. 

According to sociologist Louis Wirth in 1945, a minority group is “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination.” 

That is, the inherent lack of power and the discrimination connote a minority which in its sociological context can be interchangeably used with the term subordinate.

In 1939, the scapegoat theory first developed from Dollard’s frustration-aggression theory suggests that “the dominant group will displace their unfocused aggression onto a subordinate group.” Historically, this power-mongering and shifting frustration had resulted in deaths like Adolf Hitler who blamed and killed millions of Jews to hide Germany’s socio-economic problem.

In Canada, eastern European immigrants were labeled as Bolsheviks and interned during the economic slump after World War I. In the US, there have been many enacted laws created to disenfranchise immigrants. 

According to an article by the UW (University of Washington) News, religious discrimination albeit a serious problem has not been studied extensively as opposed to race- or gender-based discrimination.

In a study led by Steve Pfaff, a professor of sociology at UW, they discovered that Muslims and atheists are more likely to experience discrimination than those of Christian faiths.

Additionally, any ardent expression of faith by religious minorities regardless of religious tradition was more prone to discrimination. 

On an institutional level, despite enacted laws in the US to protect religious minorities, there are still subtle conflicting ones citing the Supreme Court’s ruling with Smith which has limited capabilities of religious individuals to seek exemption.

Asma Ussin and Howard Slugh, lawyers focused on religious liberty, said in an article in The New York Times, “While this may sound unobjectionable, the decision actually allows governments to effectively prohibit core religious practices — like the ability of a Jewish police officer to wear a ceremonial head covering — without justification. By letting government[s] burden religious exercise as long as they impose that same restriction on everyone, it diminishes the promise of the free exercise of religion, in which citizens are allowed to live out the tenets of their faith.”

They also added that “If the court overturns Smith, it will go a long way to increase constitutional protections for religious believers, especially religious minorities.”

UN special rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, called on governments to “repeal all laws that undermine the exercise of the human rights to freedom of religion or belief.”

Additionally, he also urged the adoption of comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation and acts “to empower minorities to claim their rights to religion and beliefs,” according to an article written by Edith Lederer for the Associated Press. 

He also warned that “the failure to eliminate discrimination, combined with political marginalization and nationalist attacks on identities, can propel trajectories of violence and even atrocity crimes.”

In a report to the General Assembly which circulated last week, data suggests that there have been increased restrictions in religious freedom from 2007 to 2017 through laws, policies, and government actions.

Shaheed said that since 2015 governments “employ a range of extralegal measures that violate freedom of religion or belief, which also serve to delegitimize and stigmatize certain religious or belief groups.”

He also highlighted quick designations of religious minorities as terrorist groups and consequently, members are being arrested under ‘extremism’ or ‘illegal activity charges’.

Evidence supports these claims seen in countries like Tajikistan, Moldova, and Nigeria. Particularly in the US in connection with the issue of Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, who are now being interned in ‘reeducation camps’ as part of ‘de-extremism regulations’. 

The Trump administration had allegedly supported the establishment of these reeducation camps during a private meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to former national security adviser John Bolton. Trump also thought that this was ‘the right thing to do’.

Trump has consequently denied all allegations who even signed a bill back in June to pressure China over the Uighur Muslim crackdown. 

Shaheed said that the “behavioral indicators of religious extremism” labeled by the Chinese government include “public displays of Islam and Uighur cultures, such as young men wearing beards, women wearing face veils and persons owning goods with a star and crescent” which is an “illustrative of broader ill-treatment by China of minority religion or belief communities such as Falun Gong and Tibetan Buddhists.”

Trump who had been elected in office in 2016 also created policies targeting immigrant communities which include a travel ban from six Muslim-majority countries which have pushed greater incidents of discrimination.

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