As a Root-Tilden-Kern scholar at NYU Law, Johnathan Smith ’07 knew that he wanted to use his legal career to fight for civil rights and racial and social justice. Ten years in, Smith has wholeheartedly devoted himself to those causes, having worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) and the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, and now as the legal director at Muslim Advocates.
Smith credits his experience in the Criminal Defense and Reentry Clinic, taught by Professors Anthony Thompson and Kim Taylor-Thompson, and the Juvenile Defender Clinic, taught by Vice Dean Randy Hertz, with helping him to develop legal skills crucial to the work he does now as a civil rights advocate. “Among the many things that made Johnathan a remarkable clinic student is the degree of commitment he brings to everything he does,” says Hertz. “And he always went the extra mile to do whatever could be done for each of his clients.”
While still a law student, Smith was hired as an intern at the LDF by Vanita Gupta ’01. After law school, Smith received a Fried Frank Civil Rights Fellowship, which gave him the opportunity to work for two years at the law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, and then for two years back at LDF, where he continued several years after his fellowship ended.
Smith reunited with Gupta when, during the last two years of the Obama Administration, he worked in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under her leadership. “Johnathan has incredible empathy for communities impacted by unfair laws and policies,” says Gupta. “He has keen litigation prowess and an ability to see around the corner. He initially comes off as quiet and unassuming, but then wows you with his smarts and strategic sense, as well as his wicked, deadpan humor.”
At the DOJ, in addition to addressing housing and employment discrimination—problems he worked on at LDF—Smith added issues including LGBT rights and religious discrimination to his portfolio. “We were committed to working with the American Muslim communities so that they would view the federal government as a resource and a partner,” he says. “It is very heartbreaking to see the Justice Department take a different approach under the new administration.”
Smith led Muslim Advocates in filing a lawsuit challenging the executive order blocking travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries on behalf of the Universal Muslim Association of America—the largest Shia Muslim organization in the country. The challenge, Smith explains, argued that the executive order violated the American Shia community’s freedom to worship, because it prevented Shia religious scholars and clergy, many of which reside in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, from being able to travel and visit with Shia communities and adherents in the United States. “We wanted to tell the story of how the executive order is not just violating fundamental constitutional values and principles, but also has a really profound and meaningful impact on the American Muslim community,” Smith says. On May 11, a federal judge in DC issued an order staying consideration of the preliminary injunction motion in light of the other nationwide injunctions in place against the executive order.
In addition to advocacy on the national level, Smith and Muslim Advocates are working to protect individual Muslim communities across the country. In recent months, Smith says, there has been an increase in opposition to the construction of mosques by local municipalities. Often this opposition is not explicit: counties and community boards and officials simply refuse Muslim communities construction permits on technicalities, while granting them to other religious organizations.
In early March, Muslim Advocates filed a lawsuit on behalf of a small Islamic congregation in Culpeper, Virginia, who had been denied a sewage permit needed in order to build their mosque. Muslim Advocates recently entered into a settlement agreement, where the county agreed to provide the congregation with the permit as well as costs, expenses, and damages. “More importantly,” Smith says “they can now move forward and actually construct their mosque and have the kind of religious community that so many other people take for granted.”
These victories help Smith feel energized and optimistic about the work that he does: “Despite the extremely challenging atmosphere, it’s exciting to be at Muslim Advocates, which is on the front lines of fighting discriminatory policies not just on the federal level, but any place that they arise,” he says. “Our work is in the proud tradition of civil rights organizations—protecting the most oppressed segments of our society and keeping our country accountable by holding it to the standards and ideals that we profess in our Constitution.”
Posted June 15, 2017