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What should freedom of religion look like in public schools?

The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District last month reignited the conversation about the place of religion in public schools.

While many fear the decision will undermine the traditional separation of church and state in public education, Northeast experts agree K-12 schools need to do better to recognize and honor the identity of students belonging to religious minorities.

As students in the southern United States begin to return to the classroom for a new school year, some Jewish parents and educators are expressing growing concerns that their children will face increased pressure from teachers to engage in Christian prayer and celebrating Christian holidays after Supreme Court ruling, says Married Karen Reissteaching professor at Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education and a rabbi.

On June 27, six of the Supreme Court’s nine justices agreed that Joseph Kennedy, a former high school football coach from Bremerton, Wash., was protected by the First Amendment when he repeatedly prayed in public on the line of 50 yards after his team’s games, and that the school district was wrong to discipline him after he refused to end practice.

Karen Reiss Medwed, senior assistant dean for faculty affairs and network engagement at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies and special advisor to the CPS dean for DEI, says students should be able to express their religious beliefs and be supported in their individual practices so that everyone can benefit from a free and equal education. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“While there have always been tensions between the separation of church and state and certain public school practices in the United States, often seen as the dilemma of Christmas, this year seems particularly vulnerable for many families as the Supreme Court ruling is celebrated in some parts of the country as permission to celebrate and engage in prayer and public Christian practices,” Medwed says.

Jewish parents fear their children will experience more anti-Semitism and other forms of anti-Christian microaggressions, Medwed says, which negatively impacts students, who need to feel safe and supported to thrive in school.

Seven out of 10 Americans identify as a Christian. When Christianity is slowly practiced by teachers or in school districts in places where it might not have been practiced in the past, it is harder to see the separation of church and state, said Medwed.

Nour Ali, an assistant professor at Northeastern’s Graduate School of Education and principal of a private nonprofit Muslim school, Al-Hamra Academy, in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, said she views the Supreme Court’s decision as selective clearance for Christian teachers. and students to practice their faith in schools as well. Ali believes that the decision did not take into account the pressure put on people of other faiths or those who do not practice religion and their feelings.

“What he’s done is he’s widened the gap between people who have privileges and those who don’t,” Ali says. “It wouldn’t have been right if it was a player kneeling down to protest the oppression of black people. It wouldn’t have been right if it was a Muslim player, who walked in in a prayer after scoring a goal.”

The religious symbolism that is OK is that which is normalized by the mainstream, Ali says, while American Muslim students across the country must make very conscious decisions about religious requirements like covering their heads.

woman wearing colorful shirt and hijab
Noor Ali, an assistant professor of education in North East Education, says the current religion-blind public education system fails to take into account the lived experience of diverse students and does not take into account their needs. religious. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Ali and Medwed agree that there is a place for faith in schools which need to better respect the religious practices of other faiths in addition to Christianity.

“Our students are expected to be able to express their religious beliefs and be supported in their individual practices so that everyone can benefit from a free and equal education,” says Medwed.

“We tried to separate everything religious and keep it sterile in an educational system,” Ali says. “It’s almost performative of religious blindness, just like color blindness was.”

Such an approach minimizes the lived experience of diverse students in many ways and ignores their religious needs, Ali says, from the food choices available in cafeterias to the different demographic groups that holidays are recognized and celebrated in a school.

“What about the religion that is so integral to you? You basically have to work really hard to keep it out,” Ali says. “Always seeing yourself as the exception to the rule is hard work when you’re five, six or seven years old.”

Ali believes that instead of being blind to religion, schools should strive to recognize and understand different religions, to honor and celebrate them.

All children should have the freedom to practice their religion and feel empowered to do so, Medwed says. His concern about the Supreme Court decision is that students are questioning their own religious identity. Medwed hopes they will find the resilience to speak up when a teacher at their school asks them to do something that makes them feel religious, whether it’s because it goes against their religion or because it makes them feel invisible in their religious identity. , says Medwed.

Jewish students often have problems with wearing yarmulkes/yamakas in secular schools, Medwed says, or with refusing to participate in a Christmas choir, and adults in positions of power can make children stand up. feel socially or academically isolated for expressing their personal beliefs.

“Which supposedly, constitutionally, each of these students has the right not to accept an invitation to participate in a religious activity that does not align with your religious beliefs,” Medwed says.

Some communities prefer to keep their children in community-focused affinity schools rather than public schools, Ali says.

“There are marginalized communities trying to create safe spaces for their children, where their children can learn their identity and also be themselves without having to explain themselves all the time they would have to do in predominantly schools. white,” Ali said.

“In my situation, our population is not only minoritized and historically underrepresented. Our people are demonized,” Ali said. “Our children carry the burden of 9/11, even though they were born more than ten years later, so being in a public school can sometimes be very difficult.”

Ali, who has researched American schooling and the experience of Muslim American students in public and non-public schools, says she sees the same patterns emerge again and again with students claiming they don’t have hungry for 30 days during the month of Ramadan or trying to figure out which teacher seems friendly enough to ask about their prayer.

She believes that the key to making every student feel welcome and seen is through conversation. Public schools need to recognize that there are other students in the classroom who need accommodations for their religious needs.

“In the educational context, we all work in the classroom to give the best to our students. What further work do we need to do to recognize, support and cultivate religious freedom not only for the religious majority, but also for the religious minorities among us? Ali said.

Education researchers like them, says Medwed, can offer expertise and provide training and insights to K-12 leaders seeking to put in place safeguards that will communicate to students that their freedoms are at the center of education. experience of students in schools.

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