Know Your Rights

A Pamphlet Produced by the Hindu American Foundation

SchoolsWorkplace | Public FacilitiesHousing | Practicing Your Religion | Bias Crime | Criminal JusticeImmigrationDomestic Violence | Download PDF Version (Condensed)

We are a nation whose strength and unity derives from its diversity.  As our Great Seal proclaims: E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”).  This is a concept that mirrors beautifully one of Hinduism’s core teachings, that Truth is One, but is manifested in many different ways.
 
Like Hinduism itself, Hindu Americans constitute a growing and increasingly visible piece of America’s religious mosaic.  And like so much of what the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) does, this project aims to make the United States a stronger nation through education.  HAF’s goal in publishing this pamphlet is to make all Americans’ freedoms more secure by educating its constituents about their legal rights and duties.  Some of these rights derive from the fundamental law of the Constitution; others flow from the actions of a State legislature or of the Congress.  Whatever their source, these rights guarantee every American’s liberty; and they are enjoyed by all, equally
 
As you will see, these pages provide basic, introductory information regarding religious freedom and related issues in the United States.  An expanded version of this guide, featuring more comprehensive discussion and legal citations, is available for download by clicking here.
 
If you have further questions or concerns, or would like to provide feedback, please contact HAF at 301-770-7835, or via the internet at http://www.hafsite.org/contact_us.  You can also learn more about these issues by consulting any of the many other dedicated organizations whose materials are referenced on the last page of this pamphlet. 
 
Sujit Raman, Editor
Sujit Raman is a lawyer who lives in Washington, D.C.  The views presented here are exclusively those of HAF, do not represent the views of any particular individual, and should not be construed as legal advice.

Schools and Public Institutions of Higher Learning

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution governs religion in the public school environment. It prohibits public schools from officially or unofficially preferring one religion over others or preferring religion over irreligion.  Many state constitutions offer similar protections.
 
What could unconstitutional religion in public schools look like?
  • A Hindu student athlete’s football team starts every game with a student-led prayer in which the coach also participates, though the coach does not ever lead the prayer.  Thus far, student athletes have recited prayers invoking, “Our Savior, Lord Jesus Christ.”  The Hindu student, though very uncomfortable, participates in the prayer for fear that the coach may not give him equal playing time as Christian student athletes.
  • A sixth grade teacher pulls aside a Hindu student after the social studies unit on Hinduism and calls her faith “evil” and one characterized only by caste, idolatry, and witchcraft.  The teacher urges the student to read and accept the truths in the Bible so that the child’s soul can be saved. 
  • A Hindu student group is denied space to meet on campus after school despite other religiously-oriented student clubs being given space. 
 
What can you do?
  • Help educate others about Hinduism, as lack of awareness could be a reason why a teacher or administrator was hurting your child’s religious freedom.You have both administrative and legal remedies.  
  • In many cases, talking to the principal about a teacher’s inappropriate behavior might resolve the issue and preclude the need to file a formal complaint against the teacher. 
  • Before filing a formal complaint against a teacher or administrator, you may want to consider the repercussions from the school community and might request that your child be reassigned to another school or classroom pending resolution of the matter. 
  • If the problem is one of school policy or curriculum, a lawsuit may be appropriate, and you should contact a lawyer for an assessment of your situation.

The Workplace

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin (among other categories). This means that an employer (of 15 or more employees) cannot use these protected categories as a basis of employment or as reasons for dismissal.  It also instructs that an employer cannot allow a hostile work environment—that is, a situation that unreasonably interferes with the employee’s ability to perform well at work or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
 
What could religious discrimination in the workplace look like?
  • A Hindu worker is demoted after making several complaints to a supervisor about fellow employees harassing her for being vegetarian.  Over several months, fellow employees purposefully made statements such as, “Mmmm, this dead cow sandwich is delicious” and ordered only meat food items during staff meetings so that the Hindu worker was be the only worker left with nothing to eat. 
  • A Hindu woman working as a public school teacher is told that she cannot wear a sari to class.  The Hindu woman explains to the school administration that the sari is a traditional Hindu dress, according to her family’s and community’s religious traditions; is appropriate attire; and in no way hinders her ability to teach or her students’ ability to learn the subject she teaches.  The administration dismisses the teacher for insubordination. 
  • A Hindu temple is in need of an office manager.  They advertise that only Hindus will be considered for the position. A highly qualified prospective employee applies, but is denied employment solely on the basis of his being Jewish.
 
What can you do as an employee?
  • Document and keep a record of everything that has happened, as this information will be useful later on if you have to file a complaint. 
  • Report the incident to your supervisor or your company’s human resources department as many companies are equipped with procedures to deal with incidents of harassment and discrimination. 
  • If the problem persists and your company does nothing, you can file a charge with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or your state’s equivalent bureau.  Most agencies require complaints to be filed within 180 days of the violation and for the formal complaint resolution process to have been completed before you can file a lawsuit.  You can find out more at https://egov.eeoc.gov/eas/.
 
What you can do as an employer?
  • Foster a work environment free of discrimination and adopt a nondiscrimination policy that you publicize to your employees. 
  • If an employee does come to you with a complaint, take it seriously, investigate the matter, and do what you can to resolve the issue and prevent it from recurring.
  • Keep good records of your actions as they may be essential to your defense in an EEOC investigation or lawsuit.
  • It may be useful to have a framework in hiring or promoting so that your judgment might not be impaired by personal preferences. 
  • There are a number of other employment laws you must follow as a business owner beyond Title VII.  There are also a number of other federal statutes that prohibit employment discrimination, including those related to age and disability.  It is a good idea to have an attorney evaluate your ever-changing business needs and environment so that you are well-informed.
  • Be proactive in preventing your employees from breaking the law in the conduct of your business.  Establishing a positive, proactive relationship with local law enforcement may help you stay informed about what you can and cannot do and how to be a responsible corporate citizen.

Public Accomodations and Facilities

Title II of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination based on religion in public accommodations. For example, it is illegal for the vast majority of hotels, motels, theaters, restaurants, shopping malls, sports arenas, convention centers, hospitals, libraries, parks, and convenience stores engaged in interstate commerce to discriminate against any person based on that person’s religion.
 
What does religious discrimination in public accommodations or facilities look like?
  • A municipality that rents out its town hall for meetings and other such engagements denies a Hindu group use of their premises to hold a Diwali celebration. 
  • A Hindu owned motel refuses to rent a Muslim family accommodation for the evening.
 
What can you do?
  • Individuals can bring a private lawsuit under Title II to enforce their right to be free of religious discrimination. 
  • The Department of Justice has the authority to initiate a lawsuit under Title II if it feels an establishment has engaged in a pattern or practice of religious discrimination.
 
Note:  In addition to Title II, several states have enacted human rights statutes that provide an additional source of legal protection from religious discrimination.  You should contact a lawyer to learn more about your state’s laws.

Housing

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, as amended, is known as the federal Fair Housing Act.  This statute outlaws discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of homes based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and handicap or disability.  The Act prohibits both overt discrimination against members of a particular religion and more subtle actions, such as zoning ordinances designed to limit the use of private homes as places of worship.  Discrimination on the basis of these protected classes is also illegal in mortgage lending.
 
What could religious discrimination in housing look like?
  • A second generation Hindu couple responds to an “Apartments for Rent” advertisement for a unit in an apartment building.  They call ahead to inquire and the property manager assures them that there are at least two units available. When the couple arrives at the site for a viewing, the property manager realizes his error in assuming that the couple was “American,” and says he just rented out the last unit.  The advertisement continues to run in the paper for several weeks thereafter. 
  • A Hindu couple enter into a contract to purchase a home.  The seller pulls out of the contract when she finds out that the couple, according to Hindu custom, would along with their children, have one set of parents residing the home with them. 
  • A Hindu woman holds a small balavihar in her home.  About ten children attend every Saturday morning.  Her neighbor, who also sits on the local city council, doesn’t appreciate the “foreigners” coming into “her” neighborhood.  The neighbor successfully lobbies for the passage of a zoning ordinance restricting the use of private homes as schools.  The Hindu woman is subsequently cited for violating the newly passed ordinance.
 
What can you do?
You can file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) at http://portal.hud.gov/portal/page/portal/HUD/topics/housing_discrimination or call toll free at 1-800-669-9777.
 
Note:  In addition to Title VIII, several states have enacted human rights statutes that provide an additional source of legal protection from religious discrimination.  You should contact a lawyer to learn more about your State’s laws.

Practicing Your Religion

There are several sources of laws that protect your religious freedom or rights to practice your religion.  These rights come from the U.S. Constitution, as well as from individual state constitutions and from federal and state statutes.
 
Religious freedom is generally understood to be two-fold.  First, religious freedom requires that the government cannot give preferential treatment to a particular religious practice or belief.  Second, religious freedom recognizes that religion is an important aspect of many Americans’ lives and requires the state to protect the religious freedom of its people by not favoring one religion over another, or religion over no religion.
 
What could a violation of religious freedom look like?
  • A municipality cites a mandir for violating an ordinance outlawing bonfires.  The previous weekend, the temple as part of its annual Shivaratri celebration, held a traditional fire ceremony in a secure, concrete structure built specifically for such ceremonies.  Despite the ordinance having existed on the books for decades, bonfires are commonplace in the municipality, especially during the fall.  In fact, the municipality itself sponsors a bonfire on the last night of its annual Fall for the Leaves Festival. 
  • A county board begins each of its meetings with a prayer.  Local clergy can sign up to lead such prayer.  A Hindu priest applies but her application is denied.  The county board states that only those leading prayers invoking a Judeo-Christian God may participate. 
  • A Hindu prisoner requests accommodation for vegetarian meals and a japa mala.  The warden denies the request for meals stating that he has read that being vegetarian is not required by the tenets of Hinduism and that kosher and halal meals are already available.  The warden also denies the prisoner a japa mala by citing alleged security risks, even though another prisoner has been allowed a rosary.
 
What can you do?
Law firms or legal aid organizations may be willing to take religious freedom cases on a pro bono basis.  Also, you can contact the American Civil Liberties Union, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, or HAF if you believe your rights are being infringed.  Each of these organizations has a strong record of assisting or litigating on behalf of those whose religious freedoms have been curtailed. 

Bias Crimes

Bias crimes are those crimes motivated by the perpetrator’s prejudice against a particular group of people on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, or disability.  In most States, bias crimes are punished more harshly than non-bias crimes.
 
What could crimes motivated by bias look like?
  • While some teenagers vandalize a local Hindu family’s home with toilet paper and eggs, they paint a burning cross on the garage door in fluorescent orange paint with the words, “Burn in hell cow lovers!!!” written below. 
  • A street gang in a large metropolitan area calling itself the “Dotbusters” targets Hindu and Indian men and women and commits acts of violence, vandalism, and harassment against them. 
  • Many instances of bias crimes against Hindus are based on the perpetrator’s mistaken belief that the victim is Muslim or Arab.  An Indian graduate student was beaten in Boston by perpetrators who shouted “go back to Iraq” and similar anti-Arab slurs.
 
What can you do?
  • Notify the police immediately and make a report.  Keep as much detailed information as possible about the perpetrators and the surrounding circumstances.
  • If there is any injury or property damage, take pictures as evidence.
  • If the problem is a pattern of harassment or threats, keep a log of what has happened including dates and times, locations, perpetrators, and witnesses.
 
Such evidence is critical for police, prosecutors, and civil rights attorneys who can help put an end to such treatment.   Notify your local Hindu or Indian community leaders and the Hindu American Foundation so that, in concert with law enforcement, they can come up with an appropriate non-violent response.
 
Useful Information:

Criminal Justice

Profiling refers to the selection of an individual for routine criminal investigation or other law enforcement action based on generalized stereotypes regarding his or her race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.  No federal statute exists barring the effects of profiling, though it has been the official policy of the U.S. Department of Justice to ban racial profiling by federal law enforcement since 2003.
 
What should you do?
Interactions with Law Enforcement  Be respectful and cooperative during any encounter with law enforcement.  If an officer is aggressive despite your best efforts, do not escalate the situation.  Try to record the officer’s name and badge number, time and date as well as any potential witnesses and file a complaint later. 
 
Your Rights  During your interactions with law enforcement, you have certain fundamental rights of which three are very important.   These include:
  • the right to remain silent
  • the right against unreasonable searches and seizures
  • if taken into custody, the right to an attorney
 
Right to Remain Silent 
Anything you say to a police officer can be used against you in a court of law.  Your silence in custody cannot be used against you if you make it clear that you are exercising your right to remain silent or if you have been read your rights. 
 
There are, of course, exceptions.  In any interaction with law enforcement while in a car, you must provide your driver’s license, registration, and proof of insurance.  And if on the street, you must identify yourself, although you do not have to answer any other questions.
 
Right Against Unreasonable Searches and Seizures 
Except in an emergency, a law enforcement officer cannot enter your home without consent, a search warrant, or an arrest warrant.  If you are stopped on the street or in your car, an officer can hold you for a short period of time if he or she has a reasonable suspicion that a crime has occurred or is about to occur.  The police may “pat you down” if they think you might have a concealed weapon but you can refuse further searches after that.
 
If You Are Arrested 
If you are arrested, you have no obligation to give any information other than your name and address before you consult with a lawyer, who you can ask to see immediately.  Keep in mind that, as your lawyer should advise you, there may be benefits to cooperating with law enforcement.  The police have the power to search you and your immediate surroundings incident to your arrest. 
 
For a more complete, compact version of this information, see the American Civil Liberties Union’s “Bust Card” at: http://www.aclu.org/FilesPDFs/dwb%20bust%20card7_04.pdf.
 
Airports - Some special rules apply to airports, where there is a heightened need for security.  Transportation Security Officers have broad discretion and this additional screening may consist of a metal detection wand or a “pat-down” by a screener of the same sex.  Additional screening may include an examination of religious garments or effects.
 
In an airport interview, be prepared for a search by backing up electronic files in advance.  If you feel you are being profiled, you are free to ask why you have been selected, and to request to speak to a supervisor or watch commander, if appropriate.  You are required to answer questions relating to identification and whereabouts; you may object to inappropriate questions, such as those inquiring about your religious or political opinions.
 
If you feel you have been discriminated against by an airline, you can contact the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) 24 hours a day at (202) 366-2220 or at: http://www.dot.gov/airconsumer/disform.pdf
 
International Travel and Electronic Devices  - If you are traveling internationally, you may be selected for a customs inspection of your belongings.  Courts have upheld the government’s power to seize, copy or search the entire contents of any electronic device—including a laptop computer—of international travelers (including United States citizens) without any suspicion whatsoever. 
 
For guidance on how to avoid a breach of one’s confidential or personal data while traveling abroad, see http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2008/05/protecting-yourself-suspicionless-searches-while-t
 
Electronic Surveillance - Your international phone calls and e-mail may be monitored even if you are not suspected of any wrongdoing under amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  However, the government is required to secure a warrant before eavesdropping on your domestic communications. If the government is unsure that the sender and all intended recipients of a message are located within the United States, they are not barred from monitoring the communication.  E-mail is particularly susceptible to this exception.

Immigration

Regardless of your immigration status, you have a number of rights that you must assert in the context of an immigration matter, or risk losing them.  Those rights include:
  • Right to speak to an attorney before answering questions or signing a document;
  • Right to a hearing before an immigration judge;
  • Right to have an attorney present at the hearing and any interview with the Department of Homeland Security;
  • Right to request release from detention; and
  • Right against self-incrimination.
 
Unlike in a criminal proceeding, the government will not pay for your attorney in an immigration proceeding.
If you are approached by immigration authorities, you have a right to contact a lawyer before speaking with them.

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is an issue that transcends religious affiliation, education, national origin, economic level, or immigration status.  Laws forbidding domestic violence are generally enforced by state or local authorities. 
 
There are many organizations around the United States dedicated to addressing domestic violence issues, specifically in the Indian American community.  Sakhi, a community-based organization in the New York metropolitan area, has compiled a comprehensive list of South Asian anti-domestic violence organizations in the United States.  Contact any of these organizations if you need help:  http://www.sakhi.org/gethelp/southasianorgs.php
 
To download a copy of the condensed version of this booklet, as seen above, please click here.