First Amendment Forgotten?

The United States Constitution clearly states that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." By the time students are in high school, most of them are familiar with the idea that the United States of America guarantees its citizens the freedom of religion. However, no piece of paper or contract is able to fight all forms of discrimination. In fact, some students seem to take it as a given that religion x is "evil," or that followers of religion y must be converted. Since middle school, I have many seen religious disagreements lead to several forms of intolerance. These acts of bias range from outright unkindness to people who practice other religions, to students trying to force their beliefs on others.

At Our school, we should consider ourselves lucky to have a fairly diverse school community. Ethnically, we have several African American, Hispanic, and Asian students; peers coming from many different walks of life. And, with ethnic diversity, and the dawning of our teen years often comes diversity in religions. Over the past year, I have encountered followers of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Paganism. I have also met people who are Agnostics, Atheists, or who do not follow any religion at all. Minorities of all kinds have often been targeted for unfair treatment, but it seems that in this day of age, only a select few minorities are ever lucky enough to have light shed on their needs.

Most people are well aware that minority religions exist at our school, but why is this important? To clarify, I will briefly refer back to the First Amendment. The government does not give funding to organizations of religion, but it does give funding to public schools. In this case, how was the Christian club able to be set up at our school? I remember on Valentine's Day, The Christian club was allowed to give out roses containing messages about Jesus and His love to every girl in the school, Christian or otherwise. On the school's web page, it is clearly stated that The Christian club was designed to help show your friends Jesus.

Now, please don't take this the wrong way. I have nothing against Christian prayer groups, or even the existence of a club for Christians. I know several students from this club, and know that many of them are very open-minded, and very kind people. However, my objection to this group is that while it spreads "instruction to Jesus," there are no clubs for other students to share their love for the Jewish God, Allah, Jehovah, or the Lord and Lady. I understand that there can't possibly be a club to accommodate for every religion present at Our school, but I do think that the school would benefit in creating clubs for at least the prevalent minority faiths. It would at least give students interested a chance to meet others like them, and give students who are not involved with the club a stronger awareness of diversity. The club does not have to be a Jewish club, or an Islamic prayer group, but even a "minority religions club," or a "religious tolerance club," teaching fairness to all religions, and open to every faith, could bring our school one step closer to embracing diversity.

Aside from minority religious clubs, I believe that religious tolerance can be spread even in the classroom. Almost every year, we are reminded of how far we came since the African Americans had to sit in separate restaurants, or about the evils of the Holocaust. The geography courses are already doing a good job teaching basic information about the major world religions, and ethnic groups but I believe that tolerance is an issue not to be taken lightly. For instance, a history course might spend even a short time discussing the rise and fall of Druidism in the Celtic nations, or the Holy Land being taken from the Muslims. For any students who wish to spread the message of tolerance and peace, I would recommend bringing in articles on current religious issues to school on "current event days," in class. Religious prejudice is a stigma that still exists in our society, and needs to be addressed to prevent our nation from repeating past mistakes.

Although religious discrimination may not seem like a pressing issue at Our school, high school is definitely not an easy place to be "different." For instance, on more than one occasion I have lost friends because I knew that their friendship would require me to either accept their faith or to be ashamed of my own. Being a Pagan myself, I have often been referred to as a "witch." Because of this, I sometimes feel that since I am not a Christian, I can't associate with my old friends. In fact, I have had to stop associating with some people that I cared a great deal about because I knew that they wouldn't be able to accept me for who I was.

Perhaps Paganism is a fairly controversial religion, but I have heard some fairly nasty remarks aimed even at the Jewish students. This surprised me, because Judaism is defined as one of the major world religions, and shares close ties to the teachings of Christianity. Last year, around Christmas time, I heard a group of boys serenading a Jewish girl with, "I love Jesus, so should you. Unless you are a stupid Jew."

The girl said nothing, but the boys went on to discuss Hitler and use other derogatory songs and phrases at the girl.

When I've tried to talk to the students who discriminate against non-Christians, many of them have told me that they do this out of love and concern for the student's soul. This puts me between a rock and a hard place, because I know that they want to help me, but I know what I feel is best for me, and how I have chosen to run my life. And, although I've found new friends who do respect me for who I am, they in turn sometimes crack jokes about Christians. This basically starts the discrimination all over again in reverse. Religious tolerance, to me, applies to everyone, even the faiths that aren't considered minorities. Even if converting other religions is an important part of a student's faith, I feel that this should not be done in a public school.

I'm not blaming The Christian club, Christians, non-Christians, or the school for religious intolerance. It's a centuries-old conflict that may not simply fade away in a matter of months. All I'm trying to say is that as a non-Christian and a liberal it's easy to feel outnumbered in a predominately Christian school. However, my best friend, (a Christian and a liberal,) and I have decided not to allow religion to come between our friendship. I feel that this is an important agreement, not just for a friendship, but also for a school, or even a government to function peacefully. It's a fact that most wars in this world are started because one group of people dislikes another group of people. Especially now, with September 11th, and the War on Iraq, I think that it is even more important that we don't let hatred grow. If we attacked the problem at its source, rather than blaming one group of people or spreading bias, we could probably eliminate a lot of the violence that goes on in our country and in the rest of the world.