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Sikh Coalition Civil liberties: How to suppress American Muslims (and throw Sikhs and Jews under the

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    Civil liberties:
    How to suppress American Muslims (and throw Sikhs and Jews under the bus)

    altmuslimah.com - Civil liberties: How to suppress American Muslims (and throw Sikhs and Jews under the bus)

    By Rajdeep Singh (Director of Law and Policy at The Sikh Coalition)

    January 8, 2010

    At a time of fear and hostility toward Muslims, ID documents offer bigots a simple way to wreck the socio-economic mobility of religious minorities (that Sikhs, Jews, and others might be impacted is usually an afterthought). The act of redefining photo ID standards by law to slam religious minorities has an economic dimension, but it also constitutes a form of dehumanization. For the faithful, religious headcoverings are not merely articles of faith but also integral and inseparable components of their identities as human beings. They are a source of self-definition and strength.

    Are you afraid of Muslims? Do you hate the Jews? Does the word “Sikh” mean nothing to you? If so, you can make life miserable for American Muslims and other religious minorities in three easy steps without violating the U.S. Constitution.

    Step 1: Find out whether your state has its own version of something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). In general, RFRA makes it difficult for the government to violate our religious freedom.

    Step 2: If your state does not have a RFRA, figure out whether your state follows an infamous 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision called Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith. By way of Smith, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the then-prevailing standard for deciding religious freedom cases and made it relatively easy for the government to violate our religious freedom.

    Step 3: If your state follows the rule articulated in the Smith decision, tell your state legislators to make a law that prohibits all headcoverings in driver’s license and other identification photographs. Make sure that such a law applies to everybody in your state, and tell your legislators to pretend that the law is designed to promote safety. As long as the law applies to everybody and isn’t explicitly targeted at any particular religious group, your state can use the U.S. Constitution as a smokescreen for religious persecution.

    The purpose of RFRA is to restore the pre-Smith standard for deciding religious freedom cases; however, if you live in one of approximately 37 states that have not adopted RFRA, you may be well-positioned to put observant Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs in a pickle. Followers of these minority faiths are distinguished by religious headcoverings. If your state requires removal of all headcoverings for ID photographs, Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs would have to choose between their religion and the right to receive a valid ID, which is more and more often required for travel, transactions, and full participation in the life of our nation.

    In only three easy steps, followers of minority religions may lose the right to drive to work; purchase groceries; visit loved ones; or get a bank loan to buy the house next to yours. After being ghettoized and living like refugees in their own country for a little while, some of them will buckle under pressure and abandon their faith, and the principled ones might want to leave the United States altogether. And the amazing thing is – all of this would be perfectly constitutional. Oppressing other Americans hasn’t been this easy since we put Japanese Americans in internment camps a generation ago!

    Reality Check?

    If any of this sounds far-fetched, consider what happened in Oklahoma and Minnesota last year. In March 2009, the legislatures of both states considered legislation that would have banned all headcoverings in state driver’s license photographs without exception. The Oklahoma proposal was introduced in response to news that a Muslim woman in the state had been allowed to wear a hijab in her driver’s license photograph. Although the proposal was explained as a way of promoting safety in the context of law enforcement, Rep. Wade Rousselot, a sponsor of the legislation in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, summed up the real intent of the proposal on local television as follows: “If I went to another country … I would either abide by the rules, or I would not get the privilege of a driver's license in that country … and that's what we're saying here.”

    The Oklahoma bill sailed through the state House of Representatives by a vote of 88 to 8 but ultimately withered in the face of stiff opposition from an alliance of interfaith advocacy groups, unsympathetic media attention, and the prospect of lawsuits under the state RFRA. Although the Minnesota proposal was not so obviously rooted in bias—and although it went nowhere after encountering resistance from interfaith advocacy groups—Minnesota does not have a RFRA, and its legislature could have easily paralyzed religious minorities in the state by following the three-step process outlined above.

    At a time of fear and hostility toward Muslims, ID documents offer bigots a simple way to wreck the socio-economic mobility of religious minorities (that Sikhs, Jews, and others might be impacted is usually an afterthought). The act of redefining photo ID standards by law to slam religious minorities has an economic dimension, but it also constitutes a form of dehumanization. For the faithful, religious headcoverings are not merely articles of faith but also integral and inseparable components of their identities as human beings. They are a source of self-definition and strength. In history, Sikhs and Jews have been persecuted by empires that systematically targeted their articles of faith. Most recently, Muslims in Europe have been subjected to a similarly systematic stripping-away of their human right to religious self-expression.

    In the United States, forcing someone to remove a hijab, dastaar, or yarmulke in an ID photo is equivalent to telling them to stop being who they are, and the laws of most states provide ample opportunities to do so. In the post-9/11 environment, there isn’t an easier way to tell Muslims and other religious minorities in the United States to drop dead.

    Despite the best efforts of bigots to suppress religious minorities by redefining photo ID standards, advocates in the Sikh community want to preempt such efforts in the future by pushing for amendments to the PASS ID Act of 2009 (“PASS ID”), a proposed federal law that would standardize photo IDs throughout the country in a way that makes them less susceptible to forgery by terrorists and other criminals. Sikh advocates and their interfaith allies want PASS ID and its implementing regulations to codify the right of individuals to wear religious headcoverings in driver’s license and other identification photographs. Doing so would not only secure the civil rights of religious minorities throughout the United States but also strengthen the government’s own interest in ensuring that identification photographs accurately depict individuals as they ordinarily appear.

    Now more than ever, interfaith advocates must close ranks and work together in the cause of promoting civil rights and religious pluralism. Given the relative ease with which bigots can wreak havoc on our lives, we can protect our identities by protecting our American ID.
     
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