Public Schools

­­Know Your Rights! Religion And Government Don’t Mix In Public Schools – And That Means ALL Religions

  Naomi Paiss

Unlike some of my AU colleagues who have blogged recently to celebrate our Know Your Rights guides, I grew up in a big city – Philadelphia. But back then, Philly was such an ethnically segregated place that my classes in the public school I attended from fourth through sixth grade were each comprised of 35 Jewish kids, including me.

And one Protestant.

Barbara B., my former classmate, this blog post is in honor of you. With a school system that didn’t yet close because of high absenteeism during the High Holidays, what did you do on those days when every single classmate (and our teachers!) were in synagogue? How did you take those in-group jokes that just assumed that everyone was getting eight presents on Hanukkah and couldn’t eat bread for the eight days of Passover?

At least you were not learning, as I later did when sent to a Hebrew Day School, that the Torah was the source of all wisdom. Our public school teachers might have been culturally monotonous, but there were no prayers in that school – although I think we all learned some fairly secular Christian songs like “The 12 Days of Christmas” out of respect for the larger culture. But when as a proto-atheist and all-around troublemaker I fought with my Judaica teachers later on, I sometimes thought of that one Christian girl in my public school and wondered how it affected her later in life.

This is all to say that religion, even in its best iterations, often fosters inclusion for its participants and exclusion for others. That’s one of the best reasons to ensure that religion is never, ever backed by the power of the state. 

Later in life, I lived in Israel, a country with no formal division between religion and state. There is no civil marriage; everyone has to be married by the clergy of their own religion, and for the Jewish secular majority, that means following the rules of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate. Divorce, burial, even public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath are all controlled or influenced by that same rabbinate and its outsized political power.

If I hadn’t already been a strong supporter of religion-state separation as a religious minority in America, being part of the silently oppressed majority in Israel would have confirmed it. In other words, it’s not that Christians in the U.S., or Muslims in Afghanistan or Hindus in India all want to oppress religious minorities or claim that their religion represents the only real belonging and identification with the polity. It’s that a majority religion backed by the power of the state, even when that religion is a tiny minority worldwide as with officially Jewish Israel, always seems to find a way to overstep its bounds and exclude those who don’t belong to or agree with it.

When we at Americans United talk about Christian nationalism, it’s not because we think that American Christians want to bigfoot everybody else. The vast majority do not. But we see evidence every day of those who insist that America is a Christian country that should follow very narrowly interpreted Christian religious beliefs, and of what happens when those extremist beliefs are weaponized into law and public policy.

That’s what we fight here. That’s why we provide the facts about church-state separation, as in the guides to religious freedom in public schools we published this week.

And that’s why we ask you to join us.

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