States cracking down on the Islamic law misunderstand the right to freedom of religion.

Iconic poet Carl Sandburg once was asked what was the dirtiest word in the English language. His answer might have surprised some people: Exclusive.

The tendency to exclude others — to prejudge and ostracize — has dogged humankind and the United States since its inception. The first Jews to arrive in New York, then caled New Amsterdam, were refused the right even to get off their ship. When Gov. Peter Stuyvesant’s Dutch sponsors prevailed upon him to grant the Jews admission, they still weren’t allowed to vote, hold office or serve in the militia.

Throughout America’s rich history of welcoming “your huddled masses,” this dark thread of bigotry has marred our national tapestry. First, it was Jews, then blacks, Catholics, gays, and now, Muslims who must sometimes bear the brunt of our prejudices.

Small wonder. At one time, “exclusivity” was official government policy. In colonial Virginia, for example, one had to be a white, male, property-owning Episcopalian to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship. Even today, citizens can lapse into thinking that “America” has something to do with the color of my skin, where I go to worship or which language I speak.

No American religion

Being American is about none of these things. It is about the principles and ideals set forth in our Bill of Rights. Yet even a nation founded on the premise that “all men are created equal” can find itself slipping into these old patterns of prejudice and bigotry. The trauma of 9/11 and the fear that it triggered created the opportunity for such feelings to resurface.

Just look at what’s happening. There has been widespread resistance to the construction of mosques and Islamic centers. The Pew Research Center cited 53 cases in recent years. Even last summer’s attack on Sikhs appears to have been motivated by misdirected anti-Muslim bias. And it’s not just the rank and file. More than a dozen states have passed or are considering anti-sharia laws. Oklahoma has amended its constitution.

And what is sharia but the way Muslims must live and work? Drawn from the Quran, the directions of the prophet Mohammed and the teaching of Muslim scholars, sharia is prayer and fasting, work and worship, family. One cannot be a Muslim without practicing some form of sharia. Outlaw sharia and you’ve outlawed 5 million to 8 million Americans. Like the Bible and other sacred texts, sharia is always subject to interpretation, so sharia does have a dark side. In Egypt’s new constitution, to be voted on in the coming days, Islamic religious law is used as the basis for restricting fundamental rights for women and children.

Threatening Islamic law?

But is sharia a threat to America’s legal system? The Constitution prohibits courts or other government agencies from substituting religious law for civil law. The government may not compel adherence to the practices of any faith, including Islam.

Now comes an encouraging development. A coalition of more than 20 national groups — including the Interfaith Alliance, Islamic Society of North America and a bevy of church groups — recently released a set of consensus guidelines entitled “What is the truth about American Muslims?” The pamphlet includes interesting history, including the story of how Muslims first came to the USA. Most, as it turns out, came aboard slave ships. There is information about sharia law, jihad, head coverings, honor killings and the Quran. Fascinating stuff. Kudos to the Interfaith Alliance and the Religious Freedom Education Project of the First Amendment Center for pulling this off. (Learn more at

The need to resist bigotry in all its forms is not just about being nice. It’s about making America work. Without equal protection and the free exercise of religion, there is no America. It’s who we are.

Oliver Thomas is a Baptist minister, attorney and member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.