The slippery legalistic territory within which religious freedom is sometimes used to silence and persecute others is not unfamiliar terrain to me as a teacher or school administrator. Student, family, and faculty claims of a moral positions which require or compel them to condemn other communities within the school system are certainly embedded in the history of the U.S. public education system.
This argument is used to forward the agenda of the majority religious community posing temporarily as a persecuted religious minority trapped within a secular society. As in you cannot make me/my child take sex education courses, participate in diversity classes, study an Eastern religion etc. as this goes against our religion. And you cannot suppress our free speech rights with regard to expressing our beliefs against the inherent worth of other groups. So I suppose there was no reason for me to be shocked to see this t-shirt being worn in both an elementary and a high school this fall.
While certainly the underlying religious claim of this t-shirt may not be based in the majority population, the position is sheltered within the dominant religious framework, and therefore tolerated by the larger population.
That is to say, as the minister in this article suggests, “this is a Christian Nation” or what I would argue is a nation dominated by Christians. And based upon the social force of that domination, his ministry is merely asserting a given moral doctrine. While I am not suggesting his claims to Christian doctrine are accurate, his reliance upon the privileged status of Christianity shelters his followers from a human rights based outcry against their message of hate and condemnation.
Or to consider this through a reverse example, were a Muslim youth to show up with precisely the same message on her shirt, only replacing the word Islam with Christianity, she would not only be in danger during the school day, but would also be facing a variety of systemic assaults upon her civil liberties (see for example).
But instead it is a Christian, making the claim that their beliefs are being marginalized and that they have the constitutional right to assert those beliefs within the school system. And they will find a forum willing or compelled to entertain this claim throughout the system. Willing to entertain a claim that it is one citizen’s moral right to call for the persecution of another citizen based upon their affiliation with both a religious and an ethnic identity.
And here I must cue the deafening silence…. because that all to frequently will be the response of many on the ground educators when faced with this type of situation. And whether or not we recognize it, we are faced with this sort of ideological combat or conquest on a regular basis.
For it is this 1st Amendment claim which is at the center of public resistance to school safety-bully policies, inclusion plans, and diversity policies which include sexual orientation and gender identity among the classes of minorities. It is this claim which is at the root of resistance to a social studies curriculum which is more inclusive of the Global South and the East, a push back against learning that cannot be countered with an ideology of marginalization. (For example, here is an interesting clearing house of articles opposing any form of Islam education in the U.S. … the http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/5229 )
The argument is not terribly complicated as stated: I won’t participate in that policy or activity as it goes against my religion. I won’t take a class from that person, I won’t sit by that child, I won’t wear a different t-shirt or remove an offensive slogan/icon/symbol, I won’t be silenced in my calls for condemnation of certain other youth in this school. This is my expression of my moral/religious belief and therefore legal right to do as I am doing.
And it would seem that this argument frequently results in silence or acquiescence on the part of educators who feel compelled to respect the religious bias of one student over and above the existence and fundamental dignity of another. Or who feel ill prepared to respond, or fearful of the security of their own position should they respond. Or are in fact in full agreement with the sentiment. Whatever internal or external notions are driving those acting with authority within the schools, the visible response often indicates either support for the dominant ideology or educational impotence to preserve the dignity of the attacked individual or community. The educator becomes a bully bystander who represents the full authority of the school system.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that I have been well prepared to respond in these moments, nor have I been confident my responses were adequate, understood, or would be supported by my employer or the broader community. And certainly in my years in schools I have stood on the side of silence or false equivocation a damning number of times. So I am not writing this as some authority with how to steps for interrupting this socially violent practice.
I am merely thinking, who among us as educators takes the time to get their game on before these moments occur? Who slows things down enough, as fall is upon us, to consider the current the current Obama is racist and is not a ‘natural born’ American? Who is prepared to deal with these overt and covert racial and religious implications and is ready to respond when this rhetoric spills into the hallways and classrooms of the schools? When do we stop to discuss and consider how we will address the overt homophobia that is tied to dominant religions and associated with a massive amounts of school violence? The religious silencing of health and sexuality education and subsequent demonizing of females who come to represent sexuality? The list goes on and on.
Because there is no common sense / follow your instincts sort of response when it comes to this. For it seems that common sense too often takes me down the path of false equivocation where I can no longer consider the very real power difference between the two ideas or communities in question. All things are not equal between the statements of a dominant religious figure and members of a politically, socially, economically etc. marginalized community. And so my common sense neutrality as an objective and impartial educator ignores the disparity thereby siding with the powerful. Instinct on the other hand drives me toward an emotional response through which I hammer one position while condemning the other thereby perpetuating the unspoken power game that lies beneath these sort of interactions.
Some third form of response seems necessary through which one can expose the tortured logic through which these religious persecution claims are being made. While at the same time clearly indicating the school, as represented by we the individual staff, will not offer a forum for the ongoing marginalization of particular community, to further the ideological agenda of another community. So what on earth does that look like in practice? And why don’t we practice more often?
Update: Here is another article I recently read about another Florida student who felt that she should shout at a Muslim girl for not standing during a classroom pledge. The student later confront the same girl in the hallway demanding that she remove her hijab. She explained her motivation to a school faculty as follows:
After the incident, Lawrence was asked by a school staffer why she confronted the girl. “She began to rant that she was enlisting and was going to Iraq and that basically because the girl looks Middle Eastern, that makes her an enemy because all Iraqis are Middle Eastern,” according to the referral signed by assistant principal Stephen Crognale.