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The hapless leader of the U.S. Justice Department has won the scorn of Congress for his handling of the fired U.S. prosecutors and his forgetfulness about details. When it comes to enforcing anti-religious discrimination laws, however, he has been applauded by a variety of religious and anti-discrimination groups, and we also give him two cheers.
The Bush administration has made anti-religious discrimination suits a priority, and it has brought new energy to this mission. All of this has taken place under the auspices of the Justice Department's civil-rights division, and that has spurred some criticism from those who see the work of this department as primarily addressing issues of race and ethnicity.
But religious discrimination violates the Constitution as much as racial discrimination, the Bush administration argues, and it has aggressively pursued a wide variety of cases. Contrary to some stereotypes, the Justice Department has not simply defended evangelical Christians either. It has sided with Muslims and Sikhs on the topic of wearing religious head coverings to work and school. It has addressed local zoning issue conflicts involving all manner of houses of religious worship. The division has also gone after hate crimes directed at Jews or Muslims.
Some of the most contentious debates among civil libertarians involve the "establishment clause": "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," says the First Amendment. Much of the emphasis of groups like the American Civil Liberties Union as well as the courts focuses on the first part of that sentence: the establishment of religion.
Efforts to aid to parochial schools, for example, have routinely floundered on that clause. But critics say that that is an overly narrow interpretation of the Founders' intent, and that the key is not avoiding religious matters all together, but making sure that one religion is not established as the preference of the state. Instead, these critics focus on the second clause: Anything that would prohibit or restrict the free exercise of one's faith.
The United States is an extraordinarily religious country, and yet it has generally achieved tremendous harmony between the faiths in part because of the establishment clause. Indeed, some would argue that it is the very diversity of faiths in the United States that has made us so religious. One is less likely to take one's faith casually when other people are sincerely practicing theirs.
In recent years, however, conflicts fueled by international events and broad cultural shifts have become increasingly common. Attacks on mosques rose after Sept. 11. Anti-Semitic acts have occurred as an extension of conflicts in the Middle East. And Christians quick to argue when they feel they are discriminated against.
While we do applaud the government's new willingness to involve itself in the battle for religious rights, we would issue one caution. There is increasingly in our country a cult of victimhood, with many groups ready to claim victim status because of perceived or real slights. We certainly know that discrimination is real and there are real victims of that discrimination. But recourse to prosecutors and the courts should be a last resort.
If we are such a religious country, then common sense and a respect for others should be principles to which we can all adhere.
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