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Forum Seeks to Further Understanding, Acceptance, Among Those of Different Faiths 2/21/17  02/21/17 9:40:40 AM Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly Version

Sikh men are known for their religious practice of wearing turbans.
– Photos by Scott Kurz, Anti-Defamation League of Omaha
Forum Seeks to Further Understanding,
Acceptance, Among Those of Different Faiths

By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record

“Our country is at its best when it is diverse,” said Deborah Gilg, U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska. “We are a country of immigrants. … We will pull together. We will unify just like when a mosque in Texas was burned to the ground, and a local rabbi went to the imam, and handed him the keys to the synagogue. This is the true spirit of what we are about. But right now, fear is our common denominator...”
And nowhere has this fear been felt more than by those in certain religious communities. That’s why the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Region (ADL-CRC), the U.S. Department of Justice, and the City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Department presented “Protecting Arab, Muslim, Sikh, and South Asian Communities” to over 110 attendees on February 10 at the Boy’s Town Conference Center in Omaha.
The three-hour forum was in three parts. First, members of the law enforcement community: including the FBI, Omaha Police Department, U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska, Omaha Human Rights Commission and University of Nebraska at Omaha Police Department; gave information about the law regarding discrimination and hate crimes. Then members of the religious community, specifically Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews, talked about their experiences. Finally, the audience was told about some resources that are available to them.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the country’s premier legislation on civil rights. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion or creed, sex, or national origin or ancestry. It required equal access to public places and employment and enforced desegregation of schools and the right to vote.
The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 expanded the class of victims and criminalized acts of violence (or attempts to do so with fire, firearms, or other dangerous weapons) when motivated by the actual or perceived gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity of a person.
“It also applies to violent acts motivated by animus against those religions and national origins, which were not considered to be ‘races’ at the time the 13th Amendment was passed.
“To obtain a conviction, the government must prove that the crime was in or affected interstate or foreign commerce,” explained a representative from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska’s office, but that’s not usually difficult, and that the motive must be “because of,” which means the crime occurred because of the victim’s association with the protected class. Even though it is a high burden to prove, the prosecutor can look at, for instance, the perpetrator’s tattoos, paraphernalia, past behavior and even associations to build a case.
If convicted, the accused can get up to 10 years in prison; if death results in or it is a kidnapping, the accused may get up to life in prison. Although the statute doesn’t criminalize threats of violence, these may be prosecuted under other hate crime statutes, such as 42 U.S.C 3631 or 18 U.S.C 245.
The Fair Housing Act is also commonly used to charge someone with hate crimes, particularly in cross burning cases, and those convicted could get up to 10 years in prison; if death results, life. “There has been an uptick in damage to religious real estate,” said the representative from the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nebraska’s office.
John Alagaban from the Douglas County Attorney’s office explained that, according to Nebraska Revised Statute 28-110, “A person in the State of Nebraska has the right to live free from violence, or intimidation by threat of violence committed against his or her person or the destruction or vandalism of property, or intimidation by threat of destruction or vandalism of his or her property, regardless of his or her race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, age or disability.”
Essentially anyone who commits one of these offenses against a person, or a person’s property, because of these factors or because of an association with someone in these categories, will be punished by the imposition of the next higher penalty classification than the one prescribed for the criminal offense, unless it is already punishable as a Class 1B felony or higher.
“It’s a sentence enhancement, and it means more time in jail,” he said, then mentioned State of Nebraska vs. Duncan, which was a 2013 hate crime case in which Gregory Duncan was convicted of third degree assault, discrimination based, for punching Ryan Langenegger outside a restaurant in Omaha. To determine if an offense is discrimination based, one can look at the person’s Facebook page, cell phone, emails or tweets, Alagaban said.
If someone is the victim of a hate crime, that person should call 911 and file a report, said Deputy Police Chief Greg Gonzalez of the Omaha Police Department. “We have 851 police officers; 440 of those are on uniform patrol. All of them are trained on hate crimes. Last year, in 2016, we investigated four hate bias crimes.” One of these involved a restaurant worker, who, while taking out the trash, was verbally and then physically assaulted.
“He was told to ‘get out of the country,’ and he was punched and kicked,” he said. “The motive was clear. We take these things seriously.”
One problem for law enforcement is that the line between hate speech and freedom of speech is not an easy one to distinguish, explained Charlotte Evans, public safety director at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Reporting a hate crime is critical, even if no one is arrested or convicted, because, as the representative from the U.S. Attorney’s office said: “Without reporting, we wouldn’t have the statutes that we have. Reporting shapes policy and law.”
Of course, reporting is only one aspect of how to deal with hate. Educating the public is also critical, as three members of the Sikh community explained. “Ninety-nine percent of people wearing turbans are Sikhs, the fifth largest religion in the world, and a monotheism,” one of the Sikh men said. “And yet, 70 percent of those asked cannot identify a Sikh man from a photo and 20 percent of people said they felt aggressive when they saw a turban.”
The first hate crime victim after September 11, 2001, was actually perpetrated against a Sikh man, who was mistaken for a Muslim. In 2012 in Wisconsin, a gunman killed six Sikhs at their religious building; and last year in Richmond, Calif., a Sikh man was assaulted, his turban knocked off and his hair cut.
“We have seen enhanced screening and racial profiling,” the man said. “We have heard racial slurs. Patients have refused our treatment. Our children have seen increased bullying and physical intimidation. The DMV has asked us to remove our turbans.”
Wearing a turban is a religious requirement of Sikh men, who also must not cut their hair and beards; they aren’t “optional.”
“There are 40 Sikh families in Nebraska, and they are in technology, health care, education and business,” he said. “[Because of fear] we try to dilute our religious attire, and are often uncomfortable wearing our turbans. We also stay close to Omaha and Lincoln. Many of us plan to move to bigger cities.”
The Muslim community has been hit the hardest. The year 2015 “saw the highest number of incidents at mosques in the U.S.,” a board member of the ICO said. “Islamophobia is a huge challenge for the Muslim community.”
According to CNN, in 2015, there were 63 incidents against mosques, triple the number seen in 2014. The “most embarrassing” part of this? The Omaha mosque has been targeted more than any other one in the country. It has received threatening emails, has had rocks thrown through its windows, been sprayed with graffiti, and even had bacon wrapped around its door handles. Both the mayor of Omaha, and chief of police have been invited to visit the mosque, the board member said, and yet neither has as yet shown up. “People in the Muslim community don’t feel like anyone cares,” she added.
Members of ICO extend an invitation to the community to come and meet with them: “We have an open house every second Saturday of the month,” she said.
Hate crime statistics are alarming: According to the FBI, between 2014 and 2015, hate crimes were up 7 percent overall; those involving religion, up 23 percent; against Jews, 9 percent; and against Muslims, 67 percent.
In the midst of all the fear and violence, there is a glimmer of hope. As Vic Gutman, who handles public relations and fundraising for the Tri-Faith Initiative, explained, Omaha will soon have a synagogue (Temple Israel), a mosque (American Muslim Institute), and a church (Countryside Community Church) in one area. Ironically, this campus sits on the same 32 acres at 132nd and Pacific Sts., where a former Jewish country club used to exist; Jews were at one time barred from joining country clubs, so they created their own, he explained.
The $50 million project truly is inter-faith, as Gutman is Jewish, and many of the donors were Christian philanthropists, such as Susie Buffett, he said.
Not only is the project itself unique – it’s the only one of its kind – but so is its lack of backlash. “I’m from Michigan, and Detroit has the largest number of Muslims in the U.S.,” Gutman said. “When they wanted to build a mosque in the suburbs, there were demonstrations. In Tennessee, there were demonstrations. In Omaha, there haven’t been any demonstrations; the only opposition has come from a fringe group.
“The synagogue has been open for four years this year; the mosque will open in May; the church should be breaking ground in December; and the Tri-Faith Center, which is an education center, should be completed in 2019.”
What can targets of hate crimes do? An officer from the Department of Homeland Security said that the Hometown Security Initiative was created to connect schools and religious communities with law enforcement and to develop relationships.  
“You are at the forefront of protecting your communities,” he said. “We invite you to have an open dialogue with us so we can understand your layout and help you develop a plan to keep the public safe and secure. You need to know what to look for, how to report an incident, how to respond. … Most religious organizations don’t have a good plan for security. Nine out of 10 times, threats are being made and no one knows how to report them. We have a lot of resources available. We take threats seriously.”
“It’s hard to get people to make complaints, and we are complaint driven regarding housing, employment and accommodation,” said Rhonda Uher, education and outreach manager for the City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Department.
In the city of Omaha, no one can discriminate against another person based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin. And less than five years ago, sexual orientation was added to that list, she said. “You can walk in, phone or go through our website to file a complaint. We are a neutral party.”
The Anti-Defamation League, too, wants to hear about incidents of hate crimes and speech. “We protect, investigate and educate,” said Mary-Beth Muskin, director of the Anti-Defamation League Plains States Region (ADL-CRC). “We are the largest reporters in the U.S. on hate crime.
“If you see something, say something. We can’t normalize what isn’t normal. We can’t be silent; we can’t be complacent. We need to work together and collaborate.”
The ADL-CRC can be found online at http://omaha.adl.org. The City of Omaha Human Rights and Relations Department is online at: humanrights.cityofomaha.org.

Several members of the Sikh community attended the joint U.S. Department of Justice, City of Omaha,
and Anti-Defamation League forum to educate and inform the audience about their religion and issues facing them.

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