In December 2015, the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships invited governmental and civil society leaders to an event focusing on our national commitment to religious pluralism, religious freedom and nondiscrimination. The catalyst for the gathering was a series of meetings we had with members of the Know Your Neighbor coalition, an alliance of diverse religious and secular leaders dedicated to creating greater understanding across religious differences.
At the December event, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta announced that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division would hold community roundtables to explore the following issues: protecting people and places of worship from religion-based hate crimes; addressing religious discrimination in employment; combating religious discrimination, including bullying, in education; and addressing unlawful barriers that interfere with the construction of houses of worship. Federal agencies have jurisdiction to address religion-based discrimination in each of these areas, and these are areas where many religious and other community leaders have raised specific concerns.
From March to June 2016, the Civil Rights Division, in partnership with U.S. Attorneys and other Federal agencies, hosted five community roundtables across the country that focused on these issues. Additionally, the Justice Department held two roundtables in Washington, D.C., for representatives of national religious and civil rights organizations to review themes and proposals raised in the roundtables and make further recommendations
At a White House event today, the Justice Department released a report on these roundtables. In addition to the report, the Justice Department and other federal agencies announced new steps they are taking to combat religious discrimination.
For example, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is updating its website today to ensure communities know about its work to combat hate violence and enforce laws such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Civil Rights Division is also publishing an update on its enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it will implement changes to its collection of demographic data from individuals who file charges with the agency. These changes will allow EEOC to collect more precise data about the religion of the individual alleging discrimination. This will assist the agency, as well as the public, in recognizing and responding to trends in the data. And, to protect young workers, EEOC released a fact sheet, in English and in Spanish, about religious discrimination on their Youth@Work website, which presents information for teens and other young workers about employment discrimination.
Today, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a revised online complaint form to clarify when OCR can investigate complaints from individuals who believe they have experienced racial, ethnic, or national origin discrimination involving their religion. OCR also launched a new webpage that consolidates resources from across the Federal government about religious discrimination. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships and FEMA have updated their website to highlight trainings and guidance for communities on how to protect their houses of worship.
We are grateful for the work of the agencies as well as religious and other civil society leaders on these important issues. Americans deserve to be free from religion-based discrimination. We are committed to continuing to work with our partners to make this promise a reality.
Melissa Rogers serves as Special Assistant to the President and Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.