Sunday, February 21, 2016

Do Schools Violate the Establishment Clause by Encouraging Religious Experiential Learning?

On February 4th a public school in Rochester, New York held “World Hijab Day.”  Female students were encouraged by the administration to wear hijabs, the Muslim religious head covering.  Eman Muthana, a sophomore in high school, wrote a letter to principal Sheela Webster regarding the school putting on its own World Hijab Day.  The principal ultimately approved the school’s involvement in putting on the event.  Interestingly enough, no parents were notified prior to the school hosting said event.  
            The purpose of World Hijab Day was to educate the students on the religious purpose behind wearing a hijab in the Muslim faith.  Teachers brought in 150 scarves for female students to wear during a full school day.  To that end, Webster clearly states that the hijab was not to promote religion but rather for purposes of experiential learning and cultural acceptance.  She proceeded to tell WHAM: “We are an experiential school; we engage kids in all kinds of activities and projects all of the time, so the perspective of being able to learn what a hijab is, why some women choose to wear it and why some women don’t choose to wear it, and we provide the opportunity to experience it; it is well within school protocol of experiential learning.”       
            After the event was held much backlash ensued from angry parents who saw this as a completely inappropriate act on behalf of the school.  To that end, I can clearly see where these parents were coming from.  The government funds the school and thus both the teachers and the school as a whole are an extension of the government. The constitution clearly prohibits the governments participation in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups in order to keep neutrality.    Thus, the fact that the school took a day to promote a particular faith through “experiential learning” is a direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.  Furthermore, it is highly probably that since the teachers purchased the headscarves they most likely used the school’s money, public funds.  Again, a direct violation of the Establishment Clause as public funds are directly going to aiding religion. 
            Additionally, in the 1960s, there were several Supreme Court rulings banning school’s outright religious participation such as references to the Lord, conducting prayers, and direct readings from the Bible.  Thus, how is a school run World Hijab Day not considered religious participation?  Lastly, the school’s involvement appears to take neither an accommodationist nor separationist approach to religion.  It seems highly doubtful that the school would be open to allowing all religions to create their own events backed by the institution itself.  For example, if a Christian student wanted to promote having students wear crosses I can’t imagine the school would comply.  Thus, the school, and ultimately the government, is participating in favoring a certain religion over others.  As for the separationist viewpoint it is clear by the school’s blatant religious involvement with World Hijab Day that they do not or at least did not take this outlook.  Yet, this is exactly why this event generated so much controversy.  The ideals of the separationist and accommodationist are essential in interpreting the First Amendment in order to keep government neutrality and uphold the separation of church and state.  Either public institutions must be open to all religions or non at all -to step outside these boundaries is to violate the first amendment of the constitution.             


Alex Puleo said...

Taking a day to celebrate one religion over another is in violation of the Establishment Clause. While this may be an experiential school, allowing students the opportunity to engage in different cultures and practices, it does not call for a singular day to celebrate one religion over another. While personally, I do not have any issue with educating a set of students on a faith, which is often misunderstood, the celebratory day still goes against the Establishment Clause, and thus, should not be permitted. In all, it is understandable why the parents of several students complained about the day, especially due to the fact that they were not notified prior to the event.

Jim R said...

I agree with Alex's sentiments.

However, the Supreme Court established legal precedent in the McCoullum v. Board of Education. Both schools invited students to partake in a religious experience within a secular classroom.

While it does provide a chance for American students to learn about a religion that has been scorned by the public, this can still be seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Even though the hijab did not interfere with the duties of the students, the hijab is closely associated with Islamic beliefs similar to how Kaily demonstrated that the cross can be easily traced to Christianity. The Supreme Court feared that strong religious messages could coerce students into professing believes that they do not uphold.

In addition, Everson v. Board of Education forbids the use of government funds to support or aid religious activities or institutions in any form to teach or practice religion.

Lucy Fishell said...

Although I believe this school meant for “World Hijab Day" to be a celebration of a culture, they neglected to realize that the hijab is a piece of the muslim religion and because this school receives funding from the government this is in direct violation of the establishment clause. The school made matters worse when they had the teachers give out the headscarves to students, rather than have students decide whether or not they wanted to participate. I could easily how parents would be angry about this.

Maddie G said...

I don't see a problem with the school having a hijab day, as long as it was student-driven and participation was voluntary. Encouraging students to learn about and be accepting of all faiths is not an unconstitutional establishment in my mind. I think having the teachers hand out the scarves might have been pushing the limits, but as long as the students were not coerced into taking one, it's ok. It's also important to note that the idea of a hijab day came from a student at the school and they petitioned the principal. Other religions are welcome to do the same, so this is not furthering one religion over another.

nick paray said...

I believe in giving students a lot of liberty in their ability to freely express their opinions and ideals. This, however, was an overt act on part of the school to promote a certain religion. It's irrelevant whether all religions would be allowed to do this, the school shouldn't take any part in any sponsored event promoting religion. However, there is nothing wrong with 200+ students walking into school on a specific day wearing Hijab's—that's not illegal. The freedom to wear the Hijab's shouldn't be in question, it should be the schools involvement that generates controversy. If a school "cultural diversity" club wants to organize an event, they should be able to do so. However, the event may not be sponsored by the school, receive any special treatment, any financial aid, or any participation by employees of the school.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I think it's important to note where the hijabs came from. I am assuming the school paid for these hijabs to be worn by the students. This is an example of violation of the separation of church and state because the government is technically funding this hijab day. I agree with Nick's comment, that if a group of students at the high school fundraised and marketed for this event to be hosted by their club, this would be an entirely different situation. An experiential school encourage their students to learn and broaden their knowledge of different groups of people and cultures, but should not plan or encourage any movement or celebration that represents a particular religion.

Hannah L. said...

While the school may be attempting to teach it's students about other cultures and traditions, the way it went about doing so was wrong. First and foremost, schools funds were used to purchase the hijabs which is a violation of the First Amendment. Furthermore, parents were not informed of the event until after the fact. I believe that if students wanted to participate in the day, they should have first gotten permission from parents and used something other than direct school funds to pay for the hijab. I don't think that having a World Hijab Day is in violation of an establishment law if that right is given to other religions to share something of their cultures, but the way the school held the event was wrong.