Yet again, the federal government under President Donald Trump has made it clear that religious minorities aren’t welcome here.
Oregon federal public defenders on July 26 filed a motion calling for the release of more than 70 asylum seekers being held in the Federal Correctional Institution in Sheridan, Ore. According to the brief, the seekers had been denied basic religious accommodations.
Under Trump’s “Zero Tolerance” policy, immigrants fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands have been treated more like criminals than vulnerable asylum seekers. After filling up immigration detention centers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent hundreds of detainees to federal prisons where they are housed alongside prisoners.
Held on separate floors from the general prison population, the seekers were refused religious accommodations they are entitled to. And – to the surprise of no one – religious minorities were disproportionately affected. The detainees were denied accommodations for their religious headwear and dietary practices; their personal religious items were seized; and they were denied access to clergy or representatives of their faiths, appropriate locations for religious worship and religious texts in their languages.
The Oregon prison personnel entrusted with the care of the asylum seekers failed to comply with ICE’s Performance-Based National Detention Standards. Under these standards, detainees are permitted to wear religious headwear while in detention. The standards also call for “adequate space, equipment and staff” for religious practices, none of which was provided for these asylum seekers.
“Upon being taken into custody, Sikhs had their turbans and other items essential to their religious practice confiscated,” the court filing notes. “For weeks, no religiously appropriate food was provided to those with dietary religious restrictions.”
In the Sikh religion, turbans are worn as an important symbol of faith, equality and morality. Removing an individual’s turban – as done in the Oregon prison – is a serious violation of their religious practice. And in Hinduism, cows are revered as sustainers of life and many Hindus choose not to eat them. In the prison, Hindu asylum seekers were served beef with no alternative options. Additionally, the seekers were refused prayer time and scriptures in their native languages.
Refusing to accommodate the religious practices of the Sikh, Hindu and other asylum seekers seriously infringed their ability to freely exercise their religion and, according to federal defenders, it is cause to have them released.
America stands as a beacon for religious freedom in the world, but now when individuals come seeking that freedom, they are met with discrimination and cruelty.
The treatment of these asylum seekers, the Trump’s Muslim Ban, and Attorney General Jeff Session’s new “Religious Liberty Task Force” make it clear that the federal government is working to curb religious diversity in America. And things could get even worse if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court.
Separation of church and state means that all religions – and nonreligious – identities have a place in America, including those of these asylum seekers.