When the Majority Writes Rules for Schools

charles-c-haynes

Commentary
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment senior scholar

When people complain about the growing list of requests for accommodation in public schools from students and parents from minority faiths, I like to remind them that the majority faith wrote the rules.

Founded as Protestant-dominated institutions in the 19th century, public schools never open on Sunday, close for Christmas, and in other ways institutionalize accommodations for the majority faith.

That’s why I applaud New York City Chancellor Joe Klein for arranging a special ceremony for a teenager who can’t attend her graduation because it’s being held on the Jewish Sabbath. With only one Jewish graduate, it is not surprising that Li Morse’s school didn’t try harder to find another day. Truth be told, America’s expanding religious diversity is making it harder and harder to find any day that will accommodate everyone.

Nevertheless, Chancellor Klein wanted to send a message that the school district takes religious conscience seriously, even when accommodation isn’t possible. So on June 25, Klein personally presented the diploma to Li Morse at Manhattan’s historic Tweed Courthouse.

Adriel Arocha, however, has had a very different response to his request for religious accommodation. A Native American elementary student in Needville, Texas, Adriel was denied an exemption to the school’s grooming policy banning long hair for male students. Since Adriel’s religious beliefs require him to wear long hair, his family filed suit. Earlier this year, a court sided with Adriel and ordered the school to allow him to keep his hair. Now the school district is appealing that decision.

Students in the majority faith rarely need religious accommodation in public schools because the majority wrote the rules in the first place – and in many places still writes the rules. For students like Adriel whose faith is unfamiliar to many school officials, it’s often difficult to get a fair hearing. For some school officials, rules are rules – no exceptions.

But religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is our nation’s first freedom. Rather than complaining about all those requests for accommodation, we should be celebrating the genius of the First Amendment, which recognizes religious liberty as an inalienable right for people of all faiths and none. It takes work – and accommodation isn’t always possible. But taking claims of conscience seriously should be at the heart of what it means to be an American.