When government spies on religion

On June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby. In the immediate aftermath of that landmark ruling, Christian conservatives took to social media and television to declare victory and many did so with much exuberance. Democrats in the Senate rushed to win political points, proposing legislation to undo the decision. And commentators and columnists everywhere suddenly became church-state experts.

While the partisan debate over the Hobby Lobby decision continued into week two, a coalition of religious liberty advocates representing more than a dozen faith groups — including Sikhs, Jews, Muslims, mainline Protestants, Unitarian Universalists and Hindus — filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in support of Muslim Americans whose religious freedom had been violated by the City of New York.

Two years ago, a group of Muslims filed a lawsuit (Hassan v. City of New York) in federal court against the City of New York. These Muslims included a decorated Iraq war veteran, Rutgers University students and respected business owners. They alleged that the New York Police Department (NYPD) had violated their religious freedom with its decade-long mass surveillance program that mapped and monitored Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey in the years following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The surveillance program targeted Muslim American communities exclusively on the basis of their faith and not out of a suspicion of criminality.

The NYPD’s program – which was uncovered in 2011 thanks to the award-winning reporting of the Associated Press — acquired informants in each and every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York City and undercover police officers were used to keep tabs on conversations and community activities outside of the mosques’ walls.

In their brief, these religious liberty advocates stressed that targeting a specific religion with a mass surveillance program “compromises religious liberty” and is an “appalling assault” on First Amendment values.

They argued that the NYPD’s spy program has had a “direct and extremely deleterious effect on the Muslim community’s free exercise of their religion.” Because of the NYPD’s infiltration, imams avoided private conversations and counseling sessions with congregants out of a suspicion that the person was an informant. The surveillance program caused a decline in mosque attendance and prompted many Muslims, including the plaintiffs, to avoid openly discussing their beliefs out of a fear of being misinterpreted and to avoid unwanted attention from law enforcement.

This case is reminiscent of the federal government’s surveillance in the 1980s of churches thought to be involved in the sanctuary movement. Then, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) launched an investigation into religious organizations and their leaders suspected of providing shelter and safe haven to undocumented Central Americans, who had fled violence in their homelands in search of asylum.

In 1987, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the American Lutheran Church sued the INS and the U.S. Department of Justice. Two years later, a federal appeals court concluded that a church is injured “when congregants are chilled from participating in worship activities [and] when they refuse to attend church services because they fear the government is spying on them and taping their every utterance.”

This is that.

We’ve read and heard countless claims that the government’s mandate requiring for-profit corporations like Hobby Lobby to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives amounts to a complete disregard of religious liberty. The mandate was dubbed “one of the most egregious violations of religious liberty in our nation’s history.”

What do we call the City of New York’s spying on Muslim American communities and their mosques? The infiltration of a house of worship with government informants doesn’t show much regard for religious liberty!

So far, eight amicus briefs endorsed by dozens of nonprofit organizations have been filed in support of the Muslim plaintiffs. Yet, the loudest champions of Hobby Lobby are not among this diverse coalition. And, to date, no conservative Christian group has stepped forward in support of these Muslim Americans.

Aaron Weaver

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About the Author
Aaron Weaver is a recent graduate of the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, where he received a Ph.D. in Religion, Politics & Society. He blogs at www.thebigdaddyweave.com and is the author of James M. Dunn and Soul Freedom (Smyth & Helwys, 2011).

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