Asma Uddin – A Discussion on Religious Liberty in America and Diversity

Slippery Rock University’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA) has continued to find ways to increase student involvement during the ongoing pandemic. While more difficult than usual, CLA students, faculty, and staff are up to the challenge. The Department of Political Science, the Middle East Studies Center, and the Department of Nonprofit Management, Empowerment, and Diversity Studies have collaborated together to virtually bring a new speaker to campus – Asma T. Uddin. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer who will discuss the state of religious liberty in the US, the problem of differential treatment of Islam, and her experiences of being a Muslim in the US. She will be presenting via Zoom on Tuesday, November 10th.

Asma Uddin – Background:

Asma T. Uddin is a religious liberty lawyer and scholar working for the protection of religious expression for people of all faiths in the U.S. and abroad. Her areas of expertise include law and religion (church/state relations), international human rights law on religious freedom, and Islam and religious freedom. Uddin is an active lecturer to diverse religious groups in the U.S. and overseas on the importance of religious liberty, and she is widely published on the topic by law reviews, university presses, and national and international newspapers. Uddin has worked on religious liberty cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appellate courts, and federal trial courts. She has defended religious claimants as diverse as Evangelicals, Sikhs, Muslims, Native Americans, Jews, Catholics, and members of the Nation of Islam. Her legal, academic, and policy work focuses on freedom of expression such as religious garb, land use, access to religious materials in prison, rights of parochial schools, religious arbitration, etc. Uddin worked with the U.S. Department of State on advocacy against the UN Defamation of Religions Resolution. She received a State Department grant to develop the Legal Training Institute in the Middle East and North Africa and Southeast Asian countries.

After graduating from The University of Chicago Law School, Uddin served as Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and as Director of Strategy for the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. She is an expert advisor on religious liberty to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Senior Scholar at the Newseum’s Religious Freedom Center, a Visiting Scholar at Brigham Young University Law school, and a non-residential fellow at UCLA and Georgetown University. She is also a term-member with the Council on Foreign Relations and an adjunct law professor at George Mason University Law School.

She is the author of “When Islam Is Not a Religion: Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom”. Currently, she is a Senior Scholar at the Freedom Forum Institute and an Inclusive America Project Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

Topic of Discussion:

Asma will address students and faculty via Zoom November 10th at common hour (12:30PM – 2PM). All are welcome! The topic of the discussion will be on the state of religious liberty in the United States today. This will include a history of Asma’s experience working in this area and how it has changed over the years. Asma will also explain how religious liberty is unequally applied particularly towards Islam and Muslim Americans and what this means for the future of religious liberty.

Asma will also describe her experiences being a Muslim woman in the United States and how those experiences have shaped her. She will also share how shifting discourses on Islam have been problematic not only for religious liberty cases, but for the daily lives of Muslims. The discussion and treatment of Muslims as ‘outsiders’ or from the prism of national security continue to affect Muslims daily in their jobs and their communities. Asma will share her legal analysis as well as personal stories during her presentation.

Lastly, she will share her experiences becoming a lawyer and what she has learned along the way. This is for the benefit of the pre-law students and anyone else who may be interested in pursuing a career in law. This will include her advice about choosing a law school and getting started as a lawyer after school. She will take questions after the presentation.

Issue Background:

Religious liberty is a foundational civil liberty in the United States codified in the Bill of Rights within the First Amendment of the Constitution. Yet, it is one of the most contentious liberties with Supreme Court case law that dates back to the 19th Century (Reynolds v. United States – 1879). In the United States today, various court cases have shown that religious liberty continues to be a contentious issue. Depending on the interpretation of the Supreme Court, Congress and the state legislatures have worked to secure and expand this liberty. The passage of a Religious Freedom Restoration Act first by the Federal government and then by individual state governments was one of many legislative attempts at securing and expanding this liberty. In today’s Supreme Court, the protection of religious liberty is a top priority. Since 2012, there have been 13 cases involving religion in front of the Supreme Court and in 12 of those cases the Court has ruled in favor of the religious litigant. In the notorious case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (2018), the Court ruled in favor of the cakeshop owner because the Commission demonstrated animus toward the cakeshop owner’s faith.

Religious liberty has been championed by religious conservatives particularly as an aspect of the ‘culture war’ in the United States. This has led to contradictory opinions on religious liberty issues. This is apparent regarding opinions on the religious liberty of Muslims. Not only have Muslims fared worse in court cases involving religious liberty claims than other religious groups, they have had to struggle to ascertain basic religious liberties such as the right to build places of worship or cemeteries to bury their dead. Many of those seeking to deny Muslims their rights to religious liberty are the same that champion the expansion of religious liberties. This has culminated in the anti-sharia movement. The word ‘sharia’ comes from the Qur’an, the Islamic holy book. The word can be translated as the ‘clear path’. It is essentially the law of Islam like the halakhah is for Judaism or the canon law for Catholics. Some states have passed laws banning its application in the courts. Religious law is sometimes used in civil courts by different religious communities including Christians and Jews. The laws clearly violate religious liberty and are therefore unconstitutional, yet, they continue to spread across the states.

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