Protecting Religious Liberties is Imperative

Friday, Jul. 07, 2017
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace and Justice Commission
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, highlighting the importance of religious freedom, began June 21 and ended July 4. This year, the need to protect religious liberties seems ever more imperative, both globally and locally.
Around the world, people of faith are often targeted for violent repression. No religion is immune. In Mexico, for example, laws permitting local governments to maintain historic forms of government have been used to evict people from their homes and jail individuals who refuse to convert to Catholicism.  Meanwhile, priests have been killed in other parts of the country for refusing to bow to drug cartels and preaching the Gospel of love as an alternative to violence.
The Central African Republic is one of several countries torn between Christian and Muslim communities. In CAR, the Christians have burned mosques, abused Muslims, and forced roughly 80 percent of the Muslim minority to flee.  On the other side of the coin, ISIS continues to attack Christian communities in the Middle East, forcing millions from their homes. ISIS also targets Shi’a Muslims, most recently in Somalia, adding to the refugee crisis in Iraq, Somalia and Syria.
Here at home acts of violence against identified religious groups are less pronounced, but still visible. An uptick in vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and Islamic mosques in recent months caused great concern for many Americans, but vandalism is just the tip of the iceberg compared to the violent attack against two Muslim teenagers and their protectors on a Portland light-rail train by a man who ranted about Muslims.
America addresses these crimes in part through laws that provide for enhanced penalties when a crime is committed with the intent to harm an individual based on their race, religion, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. To discourage targeting of ethnic, religious, racial, or other identified groups, the laws allow prosecutors to seek punishment not only for the crime against the individual, but also for the broader harm caused to the community.
Such laws reflect an attempt to bring restorative justice to the group impacted by the crime. Restorative justice models recognize that the ripples of a criminal act spread beyond the victim. As people interested in public safety and justice, our first concern and obligation is to the victim, but we must also strive to heal the wounds inflicted on the victim’s family, the neighborhood or area where the crime occurred, etc. When a crime targets not only one person, but an entire category of people, the harms to repair are far more extensive.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations demonstrate the extent of crimes clearly targeted at specific groups. In 2015, the FBI reports, 5,818 incidents of hate crimes were reported. Of federally recognized hate crimes, 59.2 percent were based on race, ethnicity or ancestry bias. Nearly 20 percent were targeted at religions, particularly members of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Almost 18 percent of crimes were targeted against people perceived to be LGBT, and 3.3 percent sought to specifically harm persons with disabilities or based on an identified gender bias.
According to the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church, “The roots of human rights are to be found in the dignity that belongs to each human being.” When rights are denied, as they are in a criminal act, dignity is denied. When dignity is denied, we need to repair the wounds to the victim, and to the larger identified community being targeted.
The purpose of our correctional institutions, as the name implies, is to correct behavior and repair harm. As a society, we cannot correct the wrongful behaviors of discrimination if we do not acknowledge when bias and prejudice are the predominant motivation for committing a criminal act.  Violence against Muslims in Portland, Jews in St. Louis or black Methodists in South Carolina is intended to harm victims with specific religious belief or race. The punishment, and corresponding correctional programs, should reflect the full intent of the criminal act.
Jean Hill is the director of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City’s Peace & Justice Commission.
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