In 2021, the Donia Human Rights Center (DHRC) launched a pilot faculty grant to provide up to $10,000 to help support the organization of one conference or workshop by University of Michigan faculty during the 2021-22 academic year in connection with the preparation of a book or other published or publicly disseminated product with a human rights theme. 

The 2021-22 DHRC faculty grant award recipient is Melissa Borja, assistant professor in the Department of American Culture and Program in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies. Professor Borja will be hosting a workshop on “Asian American Religions, Religious Freedom, and the State” and will be working jointly with Dusty Hoesly, postdoctoral researcher, Department of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara to organize the workshop.

This project aims to convene an interdisciplinary group of scholars for a workshop and an edited volume about Asian Americans, religious freedom, and the pursuit of legal recognition and religious equality in the U.S. 

Asian Americans who practice non-Christian religions have long occupied a precarious space in U.S. law and society. In the 19th and 20th centuries, they faced scrutiny as “heathens” who constituted a foreign threat to a White Protestant Christian nation. Today, Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S., and Asian religious practices such as yoga and meditation are mainstream. Nonetheless, Asian Americans still experience racial and religious discrimination, especially when their beliefs and practices are not legible as properly religious due to predominantly Protestant-centric understandings of religion in America.

Workshop participants will trace how state governance delimits Asian American religious liberty claims and how Asian American religious practitioners advocate for their constitutional rights. Focusing on specific sites of contestation and ambiguity, this group of scholars will explore how legal claims to religious status are articulated, affirmed, or rejected. Their case studies reveal the stakes of these claims for legal classification and social inclusion.

Religious freedom is a central aspect of human rights. Legal cases and state policies involving Asian American religions raise important questions for scholars, government, and the wider public: what counts as religious, who gets to decide, and what are the stakes in such naming. These decisions affect whether and how Asian Americans achieve the same freedoms as other groups in the U.S.

The edited volume resulting from this workshop will be the first book to address Asian American religious freedom debates in a broad and interdisciplinary fashion and the first volume on U.S. religious freedom focused on Asian Americans.

The workshop is tentatively scheduled for March 31-April 1, 2022 at the University of Michigan and is planned to coincide with U-M’s celebration of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month. On March 31, 2022, the workshop will include a public panel about Asian Americans and religious freedom. On April 1, 2022, the workshop will hold a full-day private workshop focused on the research papers for the edited volume. This workshop will include the invited scholars and will be open to interested U-M graduate students and faculty members. The participating scholars are diverse in discipline, methodology, race/ethnicity, gender, and professional status, and their papers will address different themes, communities, and periods. Workshop participants will circulate paper drafts in advance of the workshop, then will revise their papers based on workshop feedback by fall 2022. The workshop organizers plan to submit a full manuscript of the edited volume to the press by early 2023.

“Understanding the experiences of Asian Americans religious groups is incredibly important, not only for those who study race and religion, but for all Americans,” said Melissa Borja, DHRC faculty grant awardee and workshop organizer noted. “Asian Americans are one of the reasons why the U.S. is more religiously diverse than ever, and it’s critical that all Americans develop a better understanding of this growing population. Moreover, centering the study of religious freedom and religious pluralism on Asian Americans helps us not only to understand our changing country, but also how American ideas of religion and freedom have evolved over time and will continue to evolve in the future.”

Information about the public portion of the workshop will be made available on the DHRC website.