The Justice Department is taking strong steps to protect the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans because they are being targeted for particular prejudice and abuse, Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez of the Civil Rights Division said Tuesday.
In comparing the discrimination of Muslim Americans to past discrimination of Catholics, Jews and others, Perez, testifying at a Senate Judiciary constitution, civil rights and human rights subcommittee hearing, attempted to fend off Republican criticism of recent DOJ actions.
Perez touted a litany of cases in which the DOJ has sought to defend the rights of Muslims to practice their religion freely and not face discrimination. But a case involving a Muslim teacher who had to quit her job to go on a pilgrimage to Mecca took center stage, as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the panel’s top Republican, pushed Perez about the validity of the case.
The case involves Safoorah Khan, 29, who was a middle school math teacher for nine months in Berkeley, Ill., when she requested three weeks off for the pilgrimage. The school district rejected her request because it said she was essential for end-of-semester school work. She ultimately quit her job and made the pilgrimage. The DOJ filed a lawsuit against the school district, alleging it infringed on her civil rights by compelling her to make a decision between her faith and job.
Graham said the DOJ’s decision to take up the case was “curious.” The Republican said Khan should have been able to find a way to accommodate the school district. He said he would not support a Christian making a request for time off in the school year to attend a three-week pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
“The fact that you took this case up is going to do more damage than good,” Graham said.
Perez defended the DOJ’s decision to file the lawsuit, noting that a similar case was taken up in the George W. Bush administration against a Tennessee hospital that didn’t allow a Muslim medical technician to take three weeks off to attend the pilgrimage.
“I’m very proud of the work we’re doing in that case,” the Assistant Attorney General said.
But Graham wasn’t impressed.
“Well they were wrong too,” the senator said.
Perez’s testimony comes less than three weeks after Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, held a hearing on Islamic radicalization, drawing a firestorm of controversy. Spectators, members of the media and television cameras filled a packed Senate hearing room on Tuesday looking for a similar display.
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), chairman of the panel holding Tuesday’s hearing, told CNN that his hearing wasn’t a response to King’s hearing. Remarks and questions from Democratic senators on Tuesday focused on the protection of Muslim Americans.
“We must condemn anti-Muslim bigotry and make it clear that we won’t tolerate religious discrimination in our communities,” Durbin said at the hearing. “We can protect our nation and still protect the fundamental freedoms of our Bill of Rights.”
Republican senators said they support protecting the constitutional rights of Muslim Americans. But they said they also endorse strong efforts to combat homegrown terrorism.
“The only way to stop terrorists is to recognize where they’re coming from,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) said. “Political correctness cannot stand in the way of identifying those who would do us harm nor can we ignore the First Amendment protections.”
Graham asked Perez whether radicalization is on the rise in the United States. The Assistant Attorney General said it was hard for him to say.
The DOJ has come under fire from Republicans, Democrats and the Muslim-American community for its handling of terrorism cases involving U.S. citizens. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed suit against the FBI claiming the agency improperly targeted Muslims for surveillance.
FBI Director Robert Mueller told House members this month that the FBI attempts to be as open as it can about its actions in terrorism investigations. But sometimes the bureau can’t give details about the subjects of its investigations and the methods employed because it is classified information, he said.
Despite these issues, Mueller said his agency has a “very good relationship” with Muslim Americans.
On Tuesday, Perez said the DOJ is working to ensure that the rights of Muslim Americans are protected.
“We will continue to use every available tool in our law enforcement arsenal to transform this headwind of intolerance into a tailwind of inclusion and opportunity,” Perez said.
The Assistant Attorney General said the DOJ has a long history of protecting the civil rights of Muslim Americans, praising the work of R. Alexander Acosta, a U.S. Attorney and Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division during the George W. Bush administration.
Acosta, who also testified Tuesday, said protecting the rights of Muslim Americans is a bipartisan issue.
“Muslim Americans should take comfort in knowing the effort to protect religious liberties has been ongoing since 9-11, has transcended the partisan divide and I hope continues to transcend the partisan divide,” Acosta said.