Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” is featuring the essays written by the winners of Americans United’s 2022 Student Essay Contest. Today we’re pleased to run an essay by the first-place winner, Ashleen Girn. Ashleen, a Sikh-American student who lives in Springfield, Mo., wrote about the Kennedy v. Bremerton and Carson v. Makin rulings and the importance of inclusive, secular schools.
By Ashleen Girn
As a Sikh-American minority, laws relating to religion directly affect how I live in my community. It connects me with other people and brings about positive change. Having a supportive community is very empowering, but I believe my religious freedom is compromised because certain religions and their values have more importance in communities now because the distinction between church and state is more unclear with recent court rulings.
People’s intentions to express religion freely are lost with the ruling in Kennedy v Bremerton. The argument in court was that this decision was made because the school district involved didn’t allow a coach to pray privately, but that is questionable. As stated by students part of the coach’s team, they felt like they had to join a public prayer right after football games or they would be ostracized due to the coach’s authority over them.
I emphasize this example because of the idea known as religious hegemony. Hegemony is the dominance of a group that is supported by norms and legal ideas. Legalizing the support of religion in a government institution like school will cause many to feel like they have to follow beliefs to fit in, especially when authorities present their religion in a group setting.
Authorities are figures that are meant to set standards, and people under that authority will feel inclined to respond to those set standards. Abrams et al (1990) is a study that shows a group setting influencing students. Students either gave judgments about a topic out loud or on paper. There were three fake students and one real student. The fake students that gave wrong answers out loud led 77% of the actual participants to go with the wrong answer. In an academic setting in front of authority, there is a demand characteristic to fit in and appeal to them, and this study shows that in a social setting people will be inclined to answer that appeals to the group.
I have also experienced this need to fit in. As a Sikh-American who lived in California, I was surrounded by a lot of people that followed the same beliefs as me, but moving to the midwest I found myself in a mainly Christian community. A few times my classmates had discussions where they asked me about my religion to then compare it to their own, which was not always comfortable. I felt an us vs. them mentality in our interactions.
That was in a peer setting, but with Kennedy v Bremerton, this could be potentially allowed in an authority-controlled setting. If I was in a position where a school had allowed an authority figure to openly proceed with religious prayer or any sort of religious actions, I would truly have felt ostracized and pressured to fit in because there would have been an expectation for me to join in religious related talk/activities. I have mimicked the majority before in school when it came to likes and dislikes in music and clothes, and I could see myself and others doing that in a context where religion in school is involved.
With Carson v Makin, I believe that it also compromises the separation of church vs state, but this decision is largely based on the concept of secular and religious education. This means in secular education schools students are educated about religion, rather than taught religion itself (like they do in some private schools).
Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion states that secular education is discriminatory against religion. What Chief Justice John Roberts is getting wrong is that secular education is not discriminatory, but rather a means of keeping education separate from government endorsement, which is against the constitution. Many court cases like Abington School District v. Schempp and McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union (2005) demonstrated this long-held belief that religion can be taught but not endorsed. Schempp declared school-sponsored Bible reading unconstitutional in government-endorsed schools, and ACLU demonstrated that commandments of a specific religion cannot be endorsed by schools.
Some religious private schools have been known to teach only how to practice religion, without any secular education. Keeping a distinction from religion that presents itself as schooling is important to keeping state and religion separate, and I believe Carson v Makin compromises this.
The problem is created with the state of Maine being required to fund religious education. It makes it easier for schools with certain ideologies to use government money to endorse practices that the government should not be spending money on and therefore supporting. One major point I would bring up about Carson v Makin is that of religious institutions discriminating against different groups of people based on religion. That puts the government in a position in which they could potentially be supporting one group in favor of ostracizing other groups of minorites. Secular education does not require a certain background, but some religious institutions do require certain backgrounds, such as being part of a certain religion to attend school.
I am not saying that people should avoid learning about religious activities if they are interested. Personally, my family has taught me that to understand my beliefs, I must learn about other beliefs. I’ve been encouraged to go and learn about other religions and practices. Having been a visitor to church, Hindu temples, rituals, and education about how to understand their teachings, I believe that reaching out to the community when there is interest is a part of getting a holistic education, but mandatory enforcement is not.
Government’s role in religion has to do with the prevention of religion influencing the government, and separation is necessary for that. Individuals should reach out to local lawmakers and emphasize them to introduce legislation for more safe and inclusive communities where one’s religious belief is not emphasized over another.