A woman reacts with others as they await word on a shooting at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sunday, August 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
“As we mourn this loss which took place at a house of worship,” said Obama, as the nation learned of a shoooting spree by an alleged white supremacist at a place of worship in suburban Milwaukee, “we are reminded how much our country has been enriched by Sikhs, who are a part of our broader American family.”
That notion of the Sikh community as “part of our broad American family” is not a new one. Sikhs have been a part of the American religious fabric for the better part of two centuries.
The members of this religion, which preaches tolerance and places high emphasis on the protection of the religious and political rights of all people, fit comfortably within the Jeffersonian ideal of religious diversity and regard for genuine religious freedom.
Thomas Jefferson, who knew that the essential protection of religious freedom involved a national commitment to guard against threats to worshipers, would surely have been aghast at the level or hatred and violence that has been directed at the roughly 500,000 American Sikhs in recent years. Though the Sikh faith is the fifth-largest religion in the world, its followers are sometimes confused for Muslims and targeted with the same sorts of discrimination and violence that has afflicted followers of Islam. Since September 11, 2001, the Sikh Coalition, the largest civil rights group for Sikhs in the United States, says it has received thousands of requests for assistance from members of the Sikh community related to employment discrimination, hate crimes and school bullying. That this violence has now shaken not just one community or state but the nation should be recognized as a particular affront to the ideals espoused by Jefferson—and to the hopes of the most enlightened founders.
Jefferson’s gravestone makes no mention of his service as the nation’s first secretary of state, second vice president or third president. But it does, at Jefferson’s behest, recount that he was “author…of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom.”
Jefferson never wanted there to be any doubt that religious freedom extended to those of all faiths, and that the essence of that freedom was the liberty to worship without threats or fear of violence of the sort that on Sunday left seven dead (included the white male shooter, who has since been identified as an Army veteran with ties to the white supremacist movement) at the Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee.