Freedom of Religion Doesn't Exist If People Are Afraid to Wear Symbols of Their Faith

A third of Jews in the U.S. have “avoided publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might help people identify” them as Jewish, according to a new poll. What kind of freedom is that?
October 23, 2019, 8:15pm
A man with kippa watches politicians standing in front of a synagogue.
Caroline Seidel / Getty Images

One week after a white supremacist terrorist murdered 51 Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand, last March, I asked my father not to attend the Jumu’ah prayer here in the U.S. The New Zealand attack had occurred inside a mosque during the holiest prayer of the week, and its effects were palpable among Muslim Americans. In that moment, it felt like the concept of religious freedom wasn’t something that extended to Muslims in the U.S.


Fears like this are common among Muslim Americans, who have been the consistent targets of verbal and physical Islamophobic attacks since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks nearly two decades ago. During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign —which included the then-candidate advocating for both a Muslim registry and ban—the rate of hate crimes against Muslim Americans rose to levels not seen in this country since the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

This heightened Islamophobia has resulted in some Muslims, particularly Muslim women who wear the hijab, avoiding being visibly Muslim following both 9/11 and the election of Donald Trump.

But Muslims aren’t the only religious minority living in fear of practicing or exhibiting their religion in America. The results of a new survey by the American Jewish Committee found that roughly one-third of those polled have “avoided publicly wearing, carrying, or displaying things that might help people identify” them as Jews.

These fears are not unfounded. Next week will mark one year since a white supremacist walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 Jewish people in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. The Pittsburgh attack and Christchurch shooting have not been isolated incidents. Hate crimes targeting both Jews and Muslims have dramatically increased in recent years. Recently, attacks targeting Jewish people have reached record levels. In 2017, 58 percent of hate crimes motivated by religious bias targeted Jewish people, according to the FBI’s database. So far this year, at least 12 white supremacists have been arrested for threatening or planning to target Jewish houses of worship.


The freedom of religion is baked into the U.S. Constitution, a fact often used by U.S. politicians to bolster their criticism of other nations where religious minorities are persecuted. But if even a portion of the country’s Muslim and Jewish populations—much less one-third—do not feel comfortable displaying their religious identity, then the de facto lived experience in the U.S. is actually preventing them from practicing their religion.

No Jewish man should be forced to choose between his safety and his beliefs while he puts on his kippah every morning, just as no Muslim woman should need to decide if it’s safe enough to pray in public. Freedom of religion is a freedom many American Jews and Muslims do not possess, no matter what the First Amendment says.

Still, while some Jews and Muslims may be more aware of their visibility, their fears are not pushing them to abandon their religions—quite the opposite actually. Despite my pleading, my dad went to the mosque that day in March. He’s also gone nearly every Friday since then. Our community was hurting from the massacre in Christchurch. For him, that was more important than any fears he might have had about violent white supremacists.

Practicing your religion in the U.S. shouldn’t necessitate courage. Unfortunately, for too many people in the U.S., it still does.

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