Religious Liberty: A Right for All People

Mosques are houses of worship. They are not terrorist organizations. According to a story that the AP recently broke, however, the New York Police Department seems to have forgotten this fact in its endeavor to infiltrate New York City mosques and Islamic institutions.

As a Presbyterian minister, I know the importance of religious liberty in my denomination's history and as we gather together in congregations to worship, to learn from each other, to comfort one another and to develop plans for our work in the world. How chilling it would be to learn that we were actually being spied on and recorded during these activities. The importance of religious freedom is the reason the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and 28 other faith-based, interfaith and religious organizations have joined together in the Shoulder-to-Shoulder Campaign to challenge discrimination targeting American Muslims.

My personal appreciation for the safety and protection I feel as I exercise my faith leads me to be deeply disturbed by the Associated Press' report that since 9/11, the NYPD has designated at least a dozen mosques as "terrorist organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams."

The NYPD also uses the "terrorist" designation to give itself legal sanction to target anyone who attends a prayer service at these mosques for surveillance as well as to justify attempting to place informants on the boards of Islamic institutions. It seems that the NYPD undertook its surveillance without any stated evidence of wrongdoing.

This new report describes the latest and perhaps most egregious example of a long string of revelations about the incredible overreach of the NYPD's spying activities targeting Muslims throughout the Northeast. Thankfully, these reports recently led to the passage of legislation by the New York City Council that will create an independent Inspector General to monitor these activities in the future, bringing genuine accountability for this massive, frightening program one step closer.

Such deeply invasive surveillance of people of any faith background in their houses of worship has very real impacts on targeted communities, including suppressing religious activities, stifling speech and association, sowing suspicion and severing trust in law enforcement.

The NYPD is the largest law enforcement agency in the country. As such, its use of the term "terrorist" to justify such incredible invasiveness provides a false legitimacy to dangerous misperceptions that Muslims, based on their free expression of religion, are suspect even when there is no specific evidence of wrongdoing. On the contrary, evidence shows that -- similar to other faith traditions -- participating in a mosque and being faithful to Islam is associated with increased civic engagement and support for the American political system.

Across the country, such wholesale associations as the NYPD is making between Muslims and terrorism have been used to justify not only surveillance, but also anti-Shariah movements in state legislatures, opposition to and desecration of sacred spaces, bullying of children in schools, and harassment of Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslim. Such discrimination deepens mistrust and impedes dialogue and partnerships.

This is a national issue in need of a national response. Justifications that target American Muslims carve out loopholes in religious freedom statutes that inevitably hurt members of other faith traditions, too. Houses of worship must be safe places for prayer and community for all faith traditions, without exception. Violating one community's right to practice its religion weakens religious freedom for all faith communities.

I stand in solidarity with the American Muslim communities of New York City and throughout the country. I applaud the tireless local efforts that have made the establishment of an independent Inspector General possible, and I call on Attorney General Eric Holder to clarify the focus of all open Department of Justice investigations into the NYPD's surveillance practices and to make public the results of any closed investigations. The importance of the very religious freedom that is guaranteed in the Constitution is at stake.

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