Freedom of Religion

We all learn in elementary or middle school that the First Amendment to The U.S. Constitution protects our Freedom of Speech, Press, Assembly, and Petition.  Specifically, the Amendment states

You may also be familiar with The Establishment Clause (known colloquially as “the separation of Church and State”),

Now take a look at Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Did you notice that the language in the two most widely recognized documents that protect freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion or belief (as an individual or a community) but fail to recognize and protect the right of an individual or community to defend against conversion?

Why is this important?

The European settler colonists who first arrived here forcibly converted the indigenous people of this land. They also forcibly converted the indigenous Africans whom they enslaved. This is why and how the United States became a Christian-majority nation. The forced conversion of Native Americans in the United States (and all over the Americas) continued long after the First Amendment was passed, including through the Indian boarding school system, which persisted until the end of the 20th century. In fact, it wasn’t until 1978, after decades of advocacy work by Native American leaders, that Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), which gave Native Americans the right to practice their traditional ceremonies, including having access to their sacred sites and giving them back their sacred objects and the right to use them. (It wasn’t until 1994 that Congress legalized the use of peyote in Native American rituals.)

I support Native Americans' rights, but what does this have to do with my rights as a Hindu American?

Freedom of religion upholds the right to practice one’s religion and to change one’s religion, it excludes the right not to be converted and to defend against conversion. The paradigm creates a loophole that leaves vulnerable the religious freedom of non-proselytizing traditions and faiths and atheists. We see the impact of this throughout the world, including and especially for Hindus throughout South Asia.

Here, intolerant does not refer to individual people’s attitudes of inclusion or kindness, but to the theological core of the faith, which positions itself as the only acceptable path. This is central to Abrahamic religions. Therefore, the free expression of religion, as protected by law, includes the right to proselytize and convert. As a result, conversion and proselytizing become normalized and neutralized as part of the framework and practice of religion, papering over the historic and contemporary violence done to indigenous communities across the globe by the two most dominant faiths, which are both intolerant. This includes the hundreds of millions of dollars sent by Churches and missions in the West specifically to convert Hindus in India. This definition and understanding of religion also creates the false impression that all religions (or indigenous traditions that have been labelled “religion”, like Sanatana Dharma) are similarly intolerant and historically oppressive.

Indigenous traditions of this land have been and are specifically harmed by the ways in which freedom of religion is enacted in the United States. Religion is understood and framed through the (intolerant) Abrahamic lens. Secularism (or separation of Church and State) is a response to that framework of religion. Meanwhile, indigenous ways of knowing and being – including sacred lands and rituals – have been targeted, prohibited, and overpowered by other interests, including business interests, the fossil fuel industry, and the Academy.


In the years since the AIRFA was passed, the Supreme Court has inconsistently honored it, often choosing economic or other “development” over the rights afforded to Native Americans by the act. Recent examples include the encroachment onto Native American sacred lands, like at Standing Rock (to build the Dakota Access Pipeline) and Mauna Kea (to build the Thirty Meter Telescope). Even sympathetic media coverage of these events rendered the Native American argument as “cultural” rather than pertaining to sacred indigenous concepts of land.