DOJ Announces New Effort to 'Promote Religious Freedom' in the Nation's Schools

By Susan Jones | March 9, 2016 | 7:02 AM EST

The Justice Department on Tuesday, March 8, 2016 announced the launch of “Combating Religious Discrimination Today,” a new initiative designed to promote religious freedom, challenge religious discrimination and enhance enforcement of religion-based hate crimes, especially as they may affect Muslims, in schools and communities. (AP File Photo)

(CNSNews.com) - Under the banner of civil rights enforcement, the U.S. Justice Department plans to "promote religious freedom" in the nation's public schools by cracking down on discrimination and bullying, especially as it may affect Muslims.

The new enforcement effort announced on Tuesday will "expand" DOJ's ability to investigate and prosecute complaints; lead community outreach; and develop guidance for federal prosecutors.

Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said one goal of the new initiative is to promote religious pluralism and create safe, supportive and inclusive schools for all children.

Following acts of terrorism, including 9-11 and San Bernardino, "too many Muslim Americans and those perceived as Muslim suffer a backlash of violence and discrimination," Gupta said. "We see criminal threats against mosques; harassment in schools; and even reports of violence targeting Muslim Americans, people of Arab or South Asian descent, and people perceived to be members of these groups."

Gupta said the new initiative, dubbed "Combating Religious Discrimination," will help DOJ fight the backlash against Muslim students and students perceived as Muslim. The initiative also will "benefit children of every background and every religion," she added.

"Our schools must remain the places where our children feel safe and supported. The places where they confront differences by building bridges of understanding. And the places where they learn that America guarantees freedom, justice and opportunity for all people -- regardless of what you look like, where you come from or which religion you observe."  

Gupta noted that DOJ's Civil Rights Division, which she heads, already has sued schools around the country on the grounds of religious discrimination.

"In part because of our efforts, today, Christian students in Bakersfield City, California, can observe Ash Wednesday without fearing an unexcused absence. Muslim students in Lewisville, Texas, can pray together during lunch. Jewish students in Pine Bush, New York, can walk the halls, ride the bus and sit in class without enduring anti-Semitic bullying and intimidation. Arabic-speaking EL students in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, can learn from qualified teachers. And Sikh students in DeKalb County, Georgia, can wear a turban to school without facing harassment."

Despite those accomplishments (some dating to the George W. Bush administration), there is more "urgent work" to be done, she said.

Guupta was speaking in Newark, N.J., at the first of several community roundtables addressing religious discrimination in education.

She said future roundtables, to be held at various locations around the country, will address related topics.

For example, a discussion in Dallas will focus on "religion-based hate crimes" targeting individuals and houses of worship; a meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, will examine religious discrimination in employment; and a roundtable in Detroit will address discrimination by local zoning officials against congregants seeking to build places of worship. The final roundtable, in Palo Alto, California, will once again concentrate on bullying and religious discrimination in schools.

“Robust community engagement and meaningful dialogue can help our country fulfill its promise of religious freedom, and we look forward to tackling this challenging work with creative solutions in the months ahead,” Gupta said.

Agencies participating in the new initiative include the Departments of Education, Homeland Security, and Labor; the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC); and within the Justice Department, the Civil Rights Division, FBI, Office of Justice Programs, Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys and Community Relations Service.  

"Agency officials will facilitate the roundtable discussions to help identify key priorities and lead robust dialogue with community members and civil rights advocates," the news release said.