by Contributing Writer
Religious intolerance is a very broad term. It can be as private and individual as a parent forbidding a child to date someone of a particular faith or as public as the historical tar-and-feathering of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. In every case, however, it boils down to the actions or attitudes of individuals or organizations against others over differences in religious belief or practice. The United States has struggled with this since before its early colonial days and — despite the best efforts of our founders to foster a national culture that would provide what James Madison described as “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion” — religious intolerance continues to be an all-too-common occurrence against which no group is immune. .
Muslims have long been the targets of discrimination in the U.S., but following the tragedies of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment and activity have risen sharply. Events such as the controversies surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who burned copies of the Quran, are well publicized but they are far from isolated incidents. The American Civil Liberties Union reports what they call “anti-mosque activities” in 31 states between December, 2005, and September, 2012, ranging in severity from simple graffiti and other minor vandalism to arson and bombings. In one case, a Muslim woman was verbally assaulted and pepper-sprayed in front of an Islamic center in Columbus, Ohio.
Despite its dominance among American faiths, Christians have been the victims of religious intolerance throughout our nation’s history and non-Protestant denominations — particularly Catholics and Mormons — have borne the brunt of it. The same conflagration that began with Joseph Smith’s tarring and feathering also saw massacres, the forced removal of Mormons from Missouri and, ultimately, the assassination of Smith and his brother in 1844. To this day, Mormons are regularly accused of condoning polygamy, despite the fact that the denomination, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been one of the most vigorous opponents of the practice since 1890. Catholics, as well, have long been maligned by their fellow Americans. Many states had laws restricting Catholic civil rights, including the right to hold public office, and one of Benedict Arnold’s stated reasons for his betrayal was America’s alliance with Catholic France during the Revolution. Driven by nationalist fears of papal allegiance, riots and other violent incidents against Catholics persisted well into the 19th century.
The persecution of Jews throughout history stands, perhaps, as the epitome of religious intolerance and they’ve suffered it in the United States as they have almost everywhere else. A strong current of anti-Semitism has run through American society since it’s inception and came to a peak in the years leading up to World War II. At that time, according to historian Johnathan D. Sarna, “Jews faced physical attacks, many forms of discrimination, and intense vilification in print, on the airwaves, in movies, and on stage.” This period also saw the birth of Nazism both abroad and in the U.S., and violent, anti-Semitic activity continues to be a problem in the present day. Eighty percent of the 1400 religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI in 1998 were “anti-Jewish” in nature.
Of all the groups that have experienced religious intolerance in what is now the United States, perhaps none have suffered longer than Native Americans. Beginning with some of their first interactions with European settlers, Native Americans were driven off ancestral lands for centuries, denied access to holy sites and forced to attend government-run schools in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the man”; students were typically divorced from all aspects of tribal culture, including religion and language. The final prohibitions against practicing Native American religions were lifted in 1994. Native religious leaders continue to be surveilled by government agencies and tribes still frequently lose access to sacred sites because of urban and industrial development. A 1999 Special Report to the UN Commission on Human Rights noted that such losses were often the result of “an indifference and even hostility on the part of the various officials and other parties involved . . . with regard to the values and beliefs of the original inhabitants of the United States.”
Secular Humanists and other Non-theists
A 2003 study by the University of Minnesota on the acceptance of various racial, religious and other groups in America, found nearly half of Americans (47.6 percent) would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. In addition, 39.6 percent said atheists “do not at all agree with my vision of American society.” A 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found seven states with constitutional prohibitions against atheists holding office. In Arkansas, non-theists are legally disqualified from bearing witness in court, despite the fact that the Supreme Court declared such provisions unconstitutional in 1961. The report found many other examples of discrimination, particularly in the military, including mandatory attendance of religious services and service members not being allowed to list “Humanist” as their religious affiliation. Finally, Secular Humanists were denied representation at the interfaith memorial service on April 18, 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombing, despite the fact that at least two of the victims of the bombing were affiliated with Boston’s secular community.