February 2023 Church & State Magazine - February 2023

Increasing Inclusion: Public Schools Must Welcome All Students. Keeping Coercive Forms Of Religion Out Is Essential To That Goal.

  Ashleen Girn

Editor’s Note: Winners of Americans United’s 2022 Student Essay Contest have been announced. Students were invited this year to write about the impact of key Supreme Court church-state cases. 

The first-place winner is Ashleen Girn of Springfield, Mo., a Sikh-American student who wrote about the Kennedy v. Bremerton and Carson v. Makin rulings and the importance of inclusive, secular schools.

Ira Sharma of Memphis, Tenn., won second place. Sharma is a nonreligious student athlete who has seen church-state violations in school firsthand and wrote about the Bremerton decision.

We have two third-place winners: Sally Geoghegan of Wilbraham, Mass., wrote about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center ruling and its impact on teens, with research on the history of abortion access in Poland. Wassila Mehimda of Revere, Mass., a Muslim student, wrote about Dobbs and religious freedom 

Ashleen Girn’s first-place essay is reprinted here. You can read the other essays online at au.org.

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 who were 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 how a group setting influences 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 in a way 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 who 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 were 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 religion-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 and state, but this decision is largely based on the concept of secular and religious education. This means in secular education, school 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 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 (1963) 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 the 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 minorities. 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.   

A diverse elementary classroom listens to their teacher during a lesson

Inclusion: Public schools embrace all (Getty Images)

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 encourage them to introduce legislation for more safe and inclusive communities where one’s religious belief is not emphasized over another.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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