The Rights of Religious Minorities
The right to worship as a person chooses was one of the reasons for the initial settlement of the United States. Thus, it is ironic that many people throughout U.S. history have been denied their civil rights because of their status as members of a religious minority. Beginning in the early nineteenth century with the immigration of large numbers of Irish Catholics to the United States, anti-Catholicism became a common feature of American life and remained so until the mid-twentieth century. Catholic immigrants were denied jobs, and in the 1830s and 1840s anti-Catholic literature accused Catholic priests and nuns of committing horrific acts. Anti-Mormon sentiment was also quite common, and Mormons were accused of kidnapping women and building armies for the purpose of dominating their non-Mormon neighbors. At times, these fears led to acts of violence. A convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, was burned to the ground in 1834. In 1844, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, and his brother were murdered by a mob in Illinois.
For many years, American Jews faced discrimination in employment, education, and housing based on their religion. Many of the restrictive real estate covenants that prohibited people from selling their homes to African Americans also prohibited them from selling to Jews, and a “gentlemen’s agreement” among the most prestigious universities in the United States limited the number of Jewish students accepted. Indeed, a tradition of confronting discrimination led many American Jews to become actively involved in the civil rights movements for women and African Americans.
Today, open discrimination against Jews in the United States is less common, although anti-Semitic sentiments still remain. In the twenty-first century, especially after the September 11 attacks, Muslims are the religious minority most likely to face discrimination. Although Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents employment discrimination on the basis of religion and requires employers to make reasonable accommodations so that employees can engage in religious rituals and practices, Muslim employees are often discriminated against. Often the source of controversy is the wearing of head coverings by observant Muslims, which some employers claim violates uniform policies or dress codes, even when non-Muslim coworkers are allowed to wear head coverings that are not part of work uniforms.
Hate crimes against Muslims have also increased since 9/11, and many Muslims believe they are subject to racial profiling by law enforcement officers who suspect them of being terrorists.
In another irony, many Christians have recently argued that they are being deprived of their rights because of their religious beliefs and have used this claim to justify their refusal to acknowledge the rights of others. The owner of Hobby Lobby Stores, for example, a conservative Christian, argued that his company’s health-care plan should not have to pay for contraception because his religious beliefs are opposed to the practice. In 2014, in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., the Supreme Court ruled in his favor.
As discussed earlier, many conservative Christians have also argued that they should not have to recognize same-sex marriages because they consider homosexuality to be a sin.
Many Hispanics and Latinos were deprived of their right to vote and forced to attend segregated schools. Asian Americans were also segregated and sometimes banned from immigrating to the United States. The achievements of the African American civil rights movement, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, benefited these groups, however, and Latinos and Asians also brought lawsuits on their own behalf. Many, like the Chicano youth of the Southwest, also engaged in direct action. This brought important gains, especially in education. Recent concerns over illegal immigration have resulted in renewed attempts to discriminate against Latinos, however.
For a long time, fear of discovery kept many LGBT people closeted and thus hindered their efforts to form a united response to discrimination. Since World War II, however, the LGBT community has achieved the right to same-sex marriage and protection from discrimination in other areas of life as well. The Americans with Disabilities Act, enacted in 1990, has recognized the equal rights of people with disabilities to employment, transportation, and access to public education. People with disabilities still face much discrimination, however, and LGBT people are frequently victims of hate crimes.
Some of the most serious forms of discrimination today are directed at religious minorities like Muslims, and many conservative Christians believe the recognition of LGBT rights threatens their religious freedoms.