Blog: when the majority writes the rules

Friday, June 26, 2009

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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

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