Faith from the Fringes: Religious Minorities in School: Public Schools Should Not Support One Religion over Another, but the Nation's Christian Majority Poses Social and Logistical Challenges to Students Who Are Religious Minorities

Article excerpt

Ethan fantasizes about the milkshakes in the school cafeteria, even though he brings his lunch from home every day because his family keeps kosher. Sameera is not sure what to say when girls see her in the bathroom washing her face, arms, and feet in preparation for her ritual prayer. Omid does not know what to do about rumors about why he has never had a girlfriend. Honoring his faith's values regarding chastity before marriage is difficult enough, and he wishes the rumors would just go away.

These students face different scenarios, but the common thread that binds them is that they struggle to navigate public schools as religious minorities. Even though American public schools maintain a separation between church and state, non-Christians face social and logistical challenges that threaten their development and academic performance. The challenges may be inadvertent or intentional, observable or discreet; they may be introduced by students, educators, school policies, or broader society. Students who consider themselves or are treated by others as religious minorities may alternately feel proud, unique, marginalized, unwelcomed, ashamed, or targeted. Educators need to be aware of what it means to be a religious minority and how they can promote the well-being of these students.

Who are they?

Christians are the dominant religious group in the U.S., and they enjoy rights and privileges unavailable to adherents of other faiths (Schlosser, 2003). Drawing on the seminal work of Peggy McIntosh on white and male privilege (1988), Schlosser out-lines numerous examples of Christian privilege, such as school materials that buoy the importance of the Christian religion and the safety that Christian children feel to disclose their religious identity. Holidays present special challenges to religious minorities in schools. Christmas, for example, is the only federal holiday with religious significance, and other widely celebrated holidays--Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and Halloween--seem secular, but have religious influences. Despite the popularity of these celebrations, a range of faith groups may object to them or decline to participate for religious reasons.

Depending on the geographic context, students across religious groups who are considered orthodox may be teased about their social values, e.g., abstaining from premarital sex and/or alcohol. Terms such as fundamentalist and conservative sometimes are used to describe sects within religions, but they are also used in a derogatory and critical manner. In addition, a national sample of the religious life of U.S. teenagers found that youth who identify with no religion or are atheists also may be shunned by classmates and their families because of their views and practices (Smith & Denton, 2005). Regardless of the specific belief system, being marginalized or considered different places religious minority students in a vulnerable position.

Determining the number of religious minority students in schools has been difficult. Most public records do not track religious affiliation, and numbers disclosed by religious organizations are generally considered to overestimate the faith population. In addition, there is a legitimate debate over what beliefs or practices qualify individuals to be counted as an adherent of a particular faith. Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2008) reveal that 78.4% of U.S. adults self-identify as Christian, 4.7% with another world religion, and 16.1% atheist, agnostic, or otherwise unaffiliated.

This survey data does not necessarily reflect the religious affiliation of children and adolescents, particularly given the significant variation of religion within families. Intermarriage and conversion may cause families themselves to be religiously pluralistic. In addition, even for family members who share the same religious affiliation, there may also be considerable variation in the level of religious commitment of primary caregivers. …