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Freedom to Believe, Act, Learn

In 1993, the United States government officially declared Jan 16th National Religious Freedom Day to honor the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. This year, Donald Trump urged Americans “to commemorate this day with events and activities that remind us of our shared heritage of religious liberty.” Meanwhile, his cabinet has a history of actively enacting policies rooted in Islamophobia and targeting Muslim-majority countries. This begs a few questions: what is religious freedom, who is afforded religious freedom in the United States, and how does it show up in education?
If you went to school in the United States, you probably remember the story told in nearly all elementary American history courses about the foundation of this country. The Pilgrims (i.e. the first colonizers of what we now call the United States) were a group of religious refugees who left their homes in Europe to build a new home. Due to their religious persecution, they envisioned their new home would be one where all people could freely practice their chosen faiths, free of discrimination or ostracization. So, it is no surprise that one of the fundamental freedoms afforded to people in the United States is the freedom of religion. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, also known as the Establishment Clause, reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In other words: everyone has the right to practice their religion, or lack thereof, without involvement from the State. This is where the famous “separation of Church and State” is derived from. This means that no Government entity (including public schools) may force religion or prohibit people from practicing their religion. For example, public schools are not allowed to start events, meetings, or class with prayer—even if the prayer is student led. Individual students, however, can pray at school so long as they do not disrupt education or try to force others to pray with them. The conversation about religious freedom and education often does not go deeper than the right to pray in school. While this is an incredibly important conversation, it does not address many of the daily experiences of non-Christian students and staff. In a country with pervasive Christian Hegemony, it is imperative that we move beyond the protection of prayer in schools.
Christian Hegemony is a phrase that describes “the everyday, pervasive, and systematic set of Christian values and beliefs, individuals and institutions that dominate all aspects of our society through the social, political, economic, and cultural power they wield” (Paul Kivel, ChristianHegemony.org). One example of Christian Hegemony is the work week. In Christian ideology, the Sabbath—or the day of rest—is Sunday. This idea of resting on Sunday as opposed to any other day has become so deeply engrained in United States culture that it is considered a secular norm. While this may seem small, the Supreme Court case, Braunfeld v Brown (1691), shows that this can prove problematic for people of other faiths. In this case, a group of business owners sued the city of Philadelphia because of a statute that required them to close their businesses on Sundays. The group of business owners argued that the statute prohibited the free exercise of their religion because, as people of Orthodox Jewish faith, they already close business on Saturdays to observe Sabbath. Closing two days in a row would put them at a significant economic disadvantage and staying open on Saturday would be against their faith. They were stuck at a crossroads because of the Philadelphia law. The Supreme Court voted in accordance with Pennsylvania, stating:

To strike down, without the most critical scrutiny, legislation which imposes only an indirect burden on the exercise of religion, i.e., legislation which does not make unlawful the religious practice itself, would radically restrict the operating latitude of the legislature. (Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 US 599 – Supreme Court 1961)

The Philadelphia blue law did not violate the freedom to hold religious beliefs, as protected by law, but it did interfere with the freedom to act. This gray area between beliefs and actions is often where we see Christian Hegemony flourish.
Christian Hegemony is also present in our public-school policies and practices in subtle ways, such as teaching children the morality of good versus evil, and overt ways, such as planning school breaks around Christian holidays. While this may seem small, planning breaks around exclusively Christian holidays (i.e. Christmas and Easter) puts students of other faiths in a position where they must choose between missing school to observe holidays or go to school and not observe. For those who choose to go to school, the holiday season can still be an intensely isolating time of year. One mother wrote about the exclusion her nine-year-old Jewish son felt during Christmas time. This article can be found here.
The feelings of exclusion, however, do not just come from the social aspects of being unlike their peers. Non-Christian students can feel excluded by the way the religious curriculum is taught. I went to a school that taught about religion as a part of World History. We spent weeks on Christianity—talking about the history, beliefs, practices, and differences in denominations—and a few days on Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism combined. During these conversations, non-Christian faiths were posited as distant, exotic, and potentially harmful. Christian Hegemony, much like other systems of domination and oppression, establishes Christianity as the norm and other schools of belief or non-belief as “other.” This othering can prove to be harmful to non-Christian students in schools as students of all faiths internalize this and turn it into bullying, discrimination, and self-hatred.
These students often deal with discrimination from their peers and teachers alike. This is especially seen for Muslim students in a post-9/11 America. When completing the Equity School Informed Climate Assessment (E.I.S.C.A) in Manchester Public Schools, RE·Center staff spoke to students of different faiths. One Muslim student expressed,

“I never felt unsafe, but more so targeted….I just realized how much people’s perception changed when I took off my hijab. I got a lot of terrorist comments.”

The same student reported having to use a faculty bathroom for a whole calendar year because “a group of girls said I was making a bomb in the bathroom and it was constant. The teachers were all nice about it but why do I have to be different?” When zooming out to look at the numbers and stories, non-Christian students and staff reported feeling stereotyped and discriminated against in schools. Moreover, non-Christian staff was significantly less likely to agree that their religion is respected in their school or office and significantly more likely to agree that Christian Hegemony is a problem in their work environment. This problem, however, is not exclusive to one school, district, or state. Stories highlighting the occurrences of discrimination and stereotyping emerge daily from students and staff across the country.
The Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state are at the core of America’s representative Democracy. However, the protection to practice your chosen faith free of persecution and interference from the government is still centered around Christian Hegemony and does not protect non-Christians from near-daily experiences of discrimination, stereotyping, and othering both on the interpersonal and institutional levels. While conversations about faith can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it is extremely important that we begin having open and honest conversations about faith-based privilege and oppression, especially as it connects to other systems of oppression. As young people are constantly internalizing the subtle and overt illustrations of systems of domination, we must constantly look at school climates (i.e. practices, policies, etc.) to see where it hides.
In community,
SabriAnan & Your Friends at RE-Center

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