Civil Rights

Myths about religious freedom abroad

While Americans routinely enjoy religious freedom, most people live in places where it is seriously restricted.

In 1998, Congress passed, and the President signed into law, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), committing America to support this universal human right abroad. As Congress attends to the issue of the reauthorization of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which IRFA created and on which we've served, it's time to address some myths about backing religious freedom overseas:


Obama should veto the Defense authorization bill

Last week, the Senate voted to pass a bill that would codify indefinite detention without trial in the United States, mandate military detention for terrorist suspects, and stop the transfer of even innocent detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay and Bagram military prisons.

If that sounds bad enough, just wait:  As we head into the holidays, the bill could get even worse. This week, the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, goes to conference, where the House and the Senate will try to reconcile a bad bill with a worse one.  Expect an even harsher, broader-reaching and more nonsensical bill in time for Christmas.


Renewing our commitment to combating domestic and sexual violence

Last week, we joined together to introduce the bipartisan Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2011.  For almost 18 years, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) has been the centerpiece of the federal government’s commitment to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking.  We should reauthorize and strengthen these programs. 


Peter King’s “Homegrown Terrorism” hearing risks repeating history

Today, December 7, 2011, is the 70th Anniversary of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.  As communities across America remember that day, Representative Peter King (R-N.Y.) seeks the spotlight once again with a Congressional hearing claiming to explore “homegrown terrorism’s threat to military communities inside the United States.” 

I hope real American values and vision drive today’s hearing, not prejudice, hysteria and a failure of leadership.  I hope King honors his position as Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee with a comprehensive review of real dangers to our military communities.  That’s what the American people deserve.

Based on King’s past hearings, however, the American people are justified to fear that King will rely on insidious discrimination targeting Muslim Americans.  If the hearing’s date (Pearl Harbor’s Anniversary) and its subject matter, the 2009 attack at Ft. Hood Texas, are any indication, today’s hearing will go too far by singling out Muslim-American service members as the danger to our military communities. Whatever happens today, let us be clear: Any blanket suggestion that all Muslim American soldiers are the threat is morally and strategically wrong.


Pearl Harbor and false accusations of homegrown terrorism

Today, the House and Senate Homeland Security Committees are holding a joint hearing on homegrown terrorism on quite an auspicious date. The hearing, titled “Homegrown Terrorism: The Threat to Military Communities Inside the United States,” falls on the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.

Seventy years ago today, nearly 2,500 Americans were killed in a surprise attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, Japanese American husbands and fathers were taken from their homes, under FBI escort, to federal detention centers. A few short months later, all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent to camps for the duration of the entirety of World War II. 

They were citizens held as prisoners and charged with no crime. Driving their detention was the U.S. government’s fear of homegrown terrorism and its doubt of the loyalties and beliefs of the community—of Japanese American citizens—based on nothing more than race and religion.


Redefining rape

Tonight across America, in depressed urban neighborhoods and affluent suburban towns, in rundown public spaces and on Ivy League campuses, women of every race, class, and ethnicity will be sexually assaulted.  

The statistics are devastating: in the United States today a rape occurs on average every two minutes.  Ultimately, 1 in 4 American women will endure this terrible crime in their lifetimes.  

How has our society responded to this epidemic of sexual violence?  Instead of outrage and concerted action, we see ineffectual responses at best and at worst the persistent belief that women are somehow responsible for their own victimization.  


Cheers to the 21st Amendment!

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to hear renowned filmmaker Ken Burns speak as he was promoting his latest documentary, Prohibition.  He discussed why it’s important for Americans to know the reasons behind the rise, reign and fall of this era in American history. 

Specifically, he commented that “We need to understand who we are […]” and ask ourselves, “Where have we been, and where are we going?”  Prohibition is airing again on PBS station WETA-TV here in Washington later this week, days after our country celebrates the anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition.  So there has never been a better time to learn the story behind our ability to legally enjoy licensed beverages (beer, wine and liquor) today.
On December 5, 1933, the states ratified the 21st Amendment, ending national Prohibition.  While the 21st Amendment allowed alcohol to be sold legally once again, there is much more to it – not only what the measure did then but what it continues to do today for communities across the country. 


Every child deserves a family

November is National Adoption Month, a time to raise awareness about the adoption of children and youth from foster care. In the U.S. there are over 400,000 children in foster care, of which 107,000 are eligible for adoption and waiting to be placed with a "forever family." Tragically, each year 25,000 youth age-out of foster care having never been adopted.

But we need to do more than be aware of this issue, we need to act.

As the plaintiff in the adoption lawsuit that rendered Florida’s ban on adoption by lesbians and gay men unenforceable, I know first-hand the harm that such policies can cause.  I have been a foster parent to 25 children over the last nine years and have seen the harm that comes to the many kids who don't get adopted.  And with our two sons, I have seen the incredible difference that an adoption can make in the lives of foster children.


A dangerous distraction: Concealed weapons bill overrides state decisions on public safety

Today, instead of working to create jobs, the Congress will consider the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, H.R. 822.  This bill is special-interest legislation at its worst.  It is opposed by virtually everyone with an interest in protecting public safety—law enforcement, policy experts, and state and local governments.  But it will appease the National Rifle Association, at least briefly, and so the Majority will bring it to the floor.

Under the National Right-to-Carry Reciprocity Act, a concealed firearm permit issued by any state would be valid in every state that allows concealed carry.  If it passes, a visitor to my home state of Michigan would be allowed to carry a loaded, hidden weapon in public, even if he has not met the minimum requirements to do so mandated by our state law.  


U.S. rights for Puerto Ricans

In the movie “The Rum Diary,” a young American journalist played by Johnny Depp discovers that Puerto Rico in the late 1950s is a sunny and vibrant island that happens to be an American territory, with seemingly limitless economic potential. As I watched the closing credits in a theater 1500 miles away from San Juan, I felt nostalgic and saddened by what the intervening half-century has brought to my native island. Long gone are those heady days in the late ‘50s, when Congress granted Puerto Ricans a measure of self-government and transformed a poor and agrarian economy into an important manufacturing base for U.S. corporations. They have been replaced by skepticism and pessimism among a population facing alarming crime rates and drug related violence, a mass exodus of manufacturing jobs in an economy mired in a recession for more than 5 years, and an unclear picture of where and how Puerto Rico fits politically with the rest of the United States.