By Bob Allen
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joined more than 120 national, state and local organizations in an open letter Oct. 24 urging the Department of Justice to investigate post 9/11 surveillance practices in New York City that signers say jeopardize the civil rights of Muslims.
The diverse group of religious, racial justice, civil rights and community-based organizations cited New York Police Department documents showing “unlawful religious profiling and suspicionless surveillance of Muslims in New York City (and beyond)” over the past decade.
The appeal follows a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of investigative reports by the Associated Press documenting that New York police have sent paid people to infiltrate mosques, student associations and other places to take photos, write down license-plate numbers and keep notes on people because they are Muslim.
Such surveillance is based on the “radicalization” theory, that Muslim religious belief and practices are grounds for law enforcement scrutiny. Letter signers called the premise “false and unconstitutional” and “rooted in ignorance and bias.”
The group said the surveillance program unfairly stigmatizes Muslims, “who are a law-abiding, diverse, and integral part of our nation and New York City,” and has “far-reaching, deeply negative effects” on their constitutional rights.
“One of the foundations of this nation is freedom of religion for everyone, yet this fundamental freedom is threatened if even one group’s ability to freely practice its faith is attacked,” said Interfaith Alliance President Welton Gaddy.
“In America, law enforcement should never turn anyone’s First Amendment-protected religious beliefs into cause for suspicion, and yet evidence shows that’s exactly what the NYPD is doing to Muslim New Yorkers,” said Gaddy, an ordained Baptist minister who serves as pastor for preaching and worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, La. “The fact that people of faith might have to fear going to their houses of worship or freely practicing their religion is about as un-American as un-American gets.”
Other groups signing the letter include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Council on American Islamic Relations, NAACP, National Religious Campaign Against Torture and New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. Signers also include the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and public-policy extensions of the United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church.
Letter signers said the NYPD program “has frayed the social fabric of Muslim communities by breeding anxiety, distrust and fear.” It hurts not only Muslims, they said, “but all communities who rightfully expect that law enforcement will serve and protect America’s diverse population equally, without discrimination.”
They asked the Justice Department to probe the surveillance program under a federal law that allows the Attorney General to conduct investigations concerning “a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers … that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”