In the US Constitution, the First Amendment (1A) is often referred to during conversations around freedom of speech. The full amendment reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
In 1789, when this amendment was ratified, the founding fathers and many in government practiced an array of religious ideologies (although almost entirely Christian) and saw to it that the best way to protect their faith, there must be a separation of church and state. Over the centuries that have passed since then America has grown, additional religions not previously represented began to arise, and the movement for LGBTQ+ lives applied pressure on more staunchly held religious values. A relevant truth to acknowledge is that the application of the first amendment in today’s America is biased at best and at worst a weapon of further oppression. What I plan to discuss is how this amendment—primarily justified as a shield from persecution—has transformed to attack and further isolate already vulnerable members of today’s society.
As a disclaimer, nothing stated after this is a condemnation of religion or any particular religious beliefs. The goal here is to discuss the relationship between church and state. In the same way that we have seen structures of government support unjust policy that impoverishes large swaths of people based on race the same habits are continued via the preservation of certain religious values over others.
The fact of the matter is that religion (for most individuals) is a fundamental part of life, to truly engage in anything without your faith making an impact on decision making is an unreasonable task. This is why the First Amendment is particular on its word choice—you can use your religion to inform what you do as a government official; however, the government cannot inform what you do as a religious person. The distinction made here is pivotal to my discussion and is where nearly all of the conflicts on church and state take place. That being said, a simple place to start is religious holidays.
Growing up as a Muslim child in America I can remember celebrating Eid-al adha (one of two significant holidays) in the same week; this year we will celebrate the same holiday at the end of July. This is because Islam is based off the Lunar Calendar and as a result is not in sync with the Gregorian (or solar) calendar that the rest of the world follows. Other religions and countries follow a lunisolar calendar which, to simplify, make adjustments to align with the seasons that we follow. Circling back to the main topic: “Christmas”, “Holiday”, or “Winter” break is a quick example of the ways that the state has made concessions to respect religion.
Another side of the same coin, the modern American work schedule is built with the expectation to have Saturdays and Sundays off. In many Muslim countries around the world, Friday and Saturday are the weekend—this is because the holy day to come to a Mosque is Jummah (Friday). This isn’t as black and white as the previous example because there are no laws passed respecting the M-F work week or prohibiting work on Sunday or Saturday; holy days for Christians and Jewish people respectively. As a result, the only times Muslims are able to hear from their Imam have been when other holidays landed on a Friday (this is an important point I’ll bring up later).
Delving into some more complex examples, one of the most significant clashes between church and state has been governing LGBTQ+ civil rights; for generations the mere existence of queer and trans folks has been the subject of litigation and lawmaking across the globe. It was just under 5 years ago that the Supreme Court recognized gay marriage under the 14th Amendment. Even more recently, Title VII laws of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 have been expanded to cover sexual orientation.
While this is a national decree, states have taken it upon themselves to build obstacles for same-sex couples to not only marry but live comfortably and honestly. The difficulty here is that even though 21 states have prohibited employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, the other 29 states are under no responsibility to follow suit. In more underhanded ways, laws have passed placing restrictions on reproductive, contraceptive and transition care by the “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” Executive Order signed by the President in 2017 allowing doctors, employers and more to refuse care or benefits for LGBTQ folks based on the morals and religious values they hold (See: Hobby Lobby Supreme Court Case). None of this even slightly covers the amplified oppression surrounding gender. Another notable order was the “Muslim Ban” where the Trump Administration barred immigration from multiple (primarily Muslim) countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa—a timeline can be found here. Hopefully I don’t need to explain the conflict between church and state here.
___________________ Take a deep breath, you’ve earned it_______
Switching gears towards religion again, it’s important to revisit that first sentence of 1A Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
I’ve outlined above an example where laws and orders have been made where the respect of religious establishments (again, nearly entirely Christian) allow for the oppression or exclusion of other groups. The distinct harm in this is that a precedent is set for what religious establishments deserve to be respected and which ones do not. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American Hijabi-Muslim Congresswoman from Minnesota needed bans on headwear in congress overturned just to allow herself to wear her hijab. Globally the hijab and the burqa (which covers the whole body), the most recognizable indicators that someone is muslim, have become the subject of attacks not only physically but legally. Whether it is in sport, on the beach or just participating in life, it is not legal to freely express religion if that religion happens to be Islam.
Islam, much like LGBTQ rights, cannot exist freely unless laws deem it so; while one is governed by a biased distrust of religious beliefs, the latter is persecuted as a result of religious beliefs. It is imperative that the irony of the first amendment is confronted and discussed. There is no law that has to pass or rule that needs to change to allow Christians to express their faith; furthermore, there is no orders or laws being passed allowing Muslims to govern their own lives based on their religious teachings. Another massive confounding factor in all of this is the basic distrust and oppression of Muslim people worldwide a.k.a. Islamophobia.
Now to the meat of the message, remember the point I wanted to make about not being able to go to the Mosque unless other holidays allow for it? There are a few exceptions to that rule in my lifetime and each of them uncover why the concept of “religious freedoms” is nothing more than wasted breath. The first time I can vividly remember calling sick to school to go to the Mosque was the Eid following 9-11-2001. Ever since that day, islamophobia in America skyrocketed to the point where Americans across the country were labeled as “sleeper agents” “terrorists” or otherwise responsible for what happened. While it is a tragic day for most people, for Muslims it was a turning point that has escalated tensions without any signs of stopping. I remember my parents, aunts and uncles discussing at length the night before whether it was too risky to go out. Topics in Sunday school began to shift, and our Imams told us how once you start prayer you cannot stop for any reason, and what would happen spiritually if we should die in the Mosque during prayer. Our parents woke us up and we drove to the mosque that morning in near silence, unsure of what America had in store.
The most recent time I took time off to go to the Mosque was almost a year ago, following the murder of 50 Muslims in New Zealand while they prayed in their Mosque. I was in Chicago, working for school when I got the news. It immediately separated me from my “reality”, and I wasn’t able to focus on anything but “I can’t believe this is STILL happening”. I looked for a Mosque in the city and I went straight there, mind blank and in a haze “He went live on social media before murdering children and elderly”. By the time I got off the metro, Police were positioned at every intersection for the mile it took for me to get to the Jummah service. Over 45,000,000 Uighur Muslims in China have been placed in concentration camps, being subjected to unspeakable amounts of torture. This is still happening today and unfortunately will continue to happen.
Where do we look in the First Amendment to protect the rights of Muslims to live freely in a country that was not built with them in mind? How can we justify the distinct rise in islamophobic remarks, beliefs, threats and attacks over the past four years? What comes after realizing that the political trend towards nationalism (“India First” “America First” “France First” etc.) is fundamentally linked to anti-Muslim policy? How much about Islam do you truly know? These are questions to ask yourself.