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Religious Freedom an Unkept Vow in U.S.

Azadeh N. Shahshahani,
ACLU Foundation of Georgia
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June 24, 2009

(A version of this article originally appeared on

I have been watching with interest and apprehension the movement reverberating in my birthplace over the past few weeks. The cries of “Azadi” by the people who have poured out in the tens of thousands into the streets to demand greater freedom have defied the distance between us.

I was born in Iran four days after the 1979 revolution. My name, Azadeh, means “free-spirited,” signifying the great hopes that my parents and the many other parents who named their daughters Azadeh that year bore for the revolution. Their hopes were soon dashed, however, as the oppressive regime of the shah was replaced by a theocracy in which there are rules governing every aspect of people’s lives in public, and even private, spaces. In this system, one’s advancement in professional and especially official ranks depends in part on the extent to which one chooses to profess one’s religiosity, as defined in a regime-dictated manner.

Faced with this backdrop, one of the freedoms that was most appealing to me when I came to the United States at age 16 was the right, free from governmental interference, to practice one’s religion, or no religion at all. I learned that this right is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. In my trips back to visit family and friends, I often boasted about the guarantee of religious freedom in the United States.

This fundamental right has been increasingly denied, however, to Muslim-Americans post-9/11, tarnishing America’s reputation as a beacon of religious freedom.

Last week, the ACLU released a report demonstrating how American Muslims’ right to practice zakat — charitable giving, which is one of the five pillars of Islam — has been violated. The ACLU report shows that U.S. terrorism finance laws and policies have had a chilling effect on Muslim charitable giving by creating an atmosphere of fear. These laws have authorized executive branch officials to target charities based on secret evidence, and without notice, charges, an opportunity to respond, or meaningful judicial review.

Closer to home, I recently joined Ms. Lisa Valentine and her husband before the Georgia Committee on Access and Fairness in the Courts. Ms. Valentine was there to testify about the experience she faced at a courthouse in Douglasville, Ga., where she was made to choose between her right to free exercise of religion and her right to access to court.

Ms. Valentine, also known by her Islamic name, Miedah, spoke about the experience of being denied the right to gain access to the courthouse on December 16, 2008, because she wore a headscarf. She found herself in handcuffs and in jail with her hijab removed after Judge Keith Rollins of the Douglasville Municipal Court sentenced her to 10 days in jail for contempt of court. Ms. Valentine and other Muslim women were denied access to the Douglasville Municipal Court, even after they expressly conveyed to court officials that the wearing of the headscarf is an expression of their faith.

Muslim-Americans, like all people in the United States, should have the right to express their religious beliefs free from discrimination or the jeopardizing of other important rights.

As eloquently stated by President Obama in his speech in Cairo on June 4th, “freedom in America is indivisible from the freedom to practice one’s religion.” The President acknowledged the right of Muslim women and girls to wear the hijab and raised the issue of the adverse effect of terrorism finance laws on Muslim charitable giving.

The administration and governments on the state and local levels need to follow up on this premise by ensuring that our laws, policies, and practices are in fact consistent with American values of due process and religious freedom.

These freedoms are too important to be violated, as evidenced by the willingness of people in my birthplace to risk their lives to secure them.

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