Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Montgomery County Public Schools, Eid, and Religious Expression

My grandmother told me how, growing up in Augusta, GA in the '30s and '40s, school was extended to Saturday mornings. She said that it was done to make the Jewish students truant. I don't know the accuracy of this, but it's not implausible motivation for a school system that started each day with a chorus of "Dixie" while saluting the Confederate flag.

Her story was about a system that was created in order to exclude a special population. This week, there's a story making the rounds about a request to change an existing system to accommodate a special population. Parents of Muslim children in Montgomery County Public Schools would like the school system to recognize the holy day of Eid in the same way that the most important Christian and Jewish holy days are recognized: by shutting the schools so that families can perform religious observances together. Read the story here:

The Montgomery Village Patch
WAMU coverage
ABC coverage

WAMU states that while standardized tests are not administered in Montgomery County schools while Muslim students are home observing Eid, other routine exams and quizzes are given.

Muslims are in a bind when they have to choose between meeting God's expectations and meeting the school district's expectations. How can they teach their children to be true to their faith and still offer their children a chance to succeed academically and participate in mainstream culture?

American Christians are fortunate to inherit special accommodations from our Anglican, Catholic and Puritan ancestors, and free practice from our Baptist ancestors. On the one hand, our holidays and our ways of talking and thinking about faith are built right into the culture; on the other hand, our non-conforming practices are permitted instead of punished. As time wears on, those non-conforming practices become the norm, and we become the standard-setters instead of the radicals.

When the Baptist way of doing church began to spread in the New World, it was in spite of a system designed to accommodate the religious practices of the colonies. Many generations later, "Baptist" is the largest non-Catholic religious affiliation in the United States. Baptists have held and do hold political power, as individual politicians and as voting bodies. We have become the norm. As new populations immigrate and grow, will Baptists remember that, like these new groups, we once lived in someone else's world? Our founding fathers and mothers, including Thomas Helwys and Roger Williams, were exiled and imprisoned for daring to speak and to live differently. In the 17th century, they demanded freedom of religious expression for Muslims and other minority religions. How much lower the stakes are for Baptists who today stand up to support their neighbors!

In many countries (France and Germany get a lot of media buzz), public expression of private religious belief is suppressed as being anti-patriotic. In the US, by and large, the intent is to allow free expression without government endorsement. So let's assume that religion should in fact be accommodated in some way by the state. Given that assumption:

1) How do you actually use your religious holidays from work or school? Is there a difference in your way of using holidays vs. non-observant people who also get those days off?

2) What's the tipping point when the school system needs to accommodate a special population in a way that affects the rest of the students? Is it by percentage of the class? Type of population? Do you know anyone who needed a new kind of special accommodation, and how did that work out?

3) For Christians: What kind of built-in accommodations have you experienced in school or in the workplace? How have you been inconvenienced in your practice of faith? And what would change in your life and your practice of faith if those accommodations were removed?

4) Practically, how can we Christians stand for justice as Muslims practice their faith in a culture tailored to meet our needs better than theirs?

1 comment:

  1. 1) Usually it will involve at least going to Mass. I'd also point out that there are many holy days throughout the year that while important to the Church, are not recognized by the state and so trying to sort out my schedule on those days is usually just a tad more difficult.

    2) I wonder if having some built in 'days off' for the students, similar to what what many business recognize for their employees would be an effective way to allow some flexibility? The schools can keep their normal schedule of federal holidays off, but also maybe have 10 days that the students can use as an allowance so they can meet a faith obligation and religious observances.

    3) I think in some ways I answered this already in question 1, or at least regarding the sometimes mild inconvenience I experience on those holy days that are not also holidays. That being said, I think I pretty much took it for granted that I'd have those days off during the year.

    4) I think your blog made a good argument from our history. And I guess my answer to question 2.