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Faith from the fringes: religious minorities in school: public schools should not support one religion over another, but the nation's Christian majority poses social and logistical challenges to students who are religious minorities.

Ethan fantasizes about the milkshakes in the school cafeteria, even though he brings his lunch from home every day because his family keeps kosher. Sameera is not sure what to say when girls see her in the bathroom washing her face, arms, and feet in preparation for her ritual prayer. Omid does not know what to do about rumors about why he has never had a girlfriend. Honoring his faith's values regarding chastity before marriage is difficult enough, and he wishes the rumors would just go away.

These students face different scenarios, but the common thread that binds them is that they struggle to navigate public schools as religious minorities. Even though American public schools maintain a separation between church and state, non-Christians face social and logistical challenges that threaten their development and academic performance. The challenges may be inadvertent or intentional, observable or discreet; they may be introduced by students, educators, school policies, or broader society. Students who consider themselves or are treated by others as religious minorities may alternately feel proud, unique, marginalized, unwelcomed, ashamed, or targeted. Educators need to be aware of what it means to be a religious minority and how they can promote the well-being of these students.

Who are they?

Christians are the dominant religious group in the U.S., and they enjoy rights and privileges unavailable to adherents of other faiths (Schlosser, 2003). Drawing on the seminal work of Peggy McIntosh on white and male privilege (1988), Schlosser out-lines numerous examples of Christian privilege, such as school materials that buoy the importance of the Christian religion and the safety that Christian children feel to disclose their religious identity. Holidays present special challenges to religious minorities in schools. Christmas, for example, is the only federal holiday with religious significance, and other widely celebrated holidays--Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and Halloween--seem secular, but have religious influences. Despite the popularity of these celebrations, a range of faith groups may object to them or decline to participate for religious reasons.

Depending on the geographic context, students across religious groups who are considered orthodox may be teased about their social values, e.g., abstaining from premarital sex and/or alcohol. Terms such as fundamentalist and conservative sometimes are used to describe sects within religions, but they are also used in a derogatory and critical manner. In addition, a national sample of the religious life of U.S. teenagers found that youth who identify with no religion or are atheists also may be shunned by classmates and their families because of their views and practices (Smith & Denton, 2005). Regardless of the specific belief system, being marginalized or considered different places religious minority students in a vulnerable position.

Determining the number of religious minority students in schools has been difficult. Most public records do not track religious affiliation, and numbers disclosed by religious organizations are generally considered to overestimate the faith population. In addition, there is a legitimate debate over what beliefs or practices qualify individuals to be counted as an adherent of a particular faith. Surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (2008) reveal that 78.4% of U.S. adults self-identify as Christian, 4.7% with another world religion, and 16.1% atheist, agnostic, or otherwise unaffiliated.

This survey data does not necessarily reflect the religious affiliation of children and adolescents, particularly given the significant variation of religion within families. Intermarriage and conversion may cause families themselves to be religiously pluralistic. In addition, even for family members who share the same religious affiliation, there may also be considerable variation in the level of religious commitment of primary caregivers. Although children's religious affiliation generally tracks with their parents' (Smith & Denton, 2005), family efforts to religiously socialize their children may lead to results different from what they had intended. Despite challenges to obtaining accurate religious demographic statistics in the U.S., one agreed-upon finding remains: The religious landscape of the United States, including schools, is becoming increasingly diverse (Eck, 2002). How do such changes affect the religious minority student in your classroom?

Social effects

Religious diversity in classrooms prompts a range of student interactions and reactions. In some cases, religious minority students may relish the extra attention. In 3rd grade, Geeta enjoyed bringing sweets to share with her classmates as she told them how Hindus celebrated the religious festival of Diwali. Her classmates discussed other Festivals of Light by Sikhs and Jains, who celebrate different versions of the Diwali festival and for different reasons. Meanwhile, her cousins in a nearby elementary school would never have broadcast their family traditions. By middle school, even Geeta dreaded being asked such questions in class by teachers, as if she were a spokesperson for Hindus or Hinduism. While some students enjoy the spotlight, others cringe at being singled out from their peers--especially when students are striving so hard to blend in.

While inadvertent stardom is one form of attention given to religious minority students, another less attractive and ultimately more harmful one is being bullied or discriminated against. Research has found that since the Sept. 11 attacks, discrimination and prejudice have become integral to the narratives of Muslim youth (Sirin & Fine, 2007). In some cases, Sikh students have been targeted, perhaps because they are mistaken for being Muslim and perhaps because of the identifiable religious dress of males. Regardless of the reason, educators and the learning community must respond when any student is targeted for abuse.

Schools have a range of strategies to manage bullying, such as zero-tolerance policies, religious-accommodation policies, and programs and trainings to enhance cultural and religious sensitivity. Similarly, religious minority students cope in a variety of ways. In many cases, students may seek to keep their religious beliefs and practices private by not volunteering information, evading common queries about such things as Christmas trees, and choosing not to report minor teasing or insults. Some students become depressed, disengaged, or involved in risky activities. In other cases, religious minority students learn to cope with a variety of situations common in public schools, such as when followers of nontheistic traditions are asked to stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. They might cope with this request, for example, by mouthing the words to the pledge or simply remaining silent. Students using some coping responses may feel a sense of internal conflict; if they mouthed the words to the pledge, for example, they may be concerned that they are somehow violating their home values. If students or their families elect for them not to participate, then they are isolated from peers and must deal both with the isolation itself as well as incessant questions by peers about why they did not participate in the activity. Religious minority students may feel that they are being treated differently and regard such treatment as unfair or unjust, particularly given the purported religious neutrality of public schools. For some students, this may fuel shame about their faith, force them to keep their beliefs and practices a secret, or discourage them from advocating for themselves--missing school for a religious holiday without informing school officials about the reason, for example. But other students may regard these experiences as reasons to learn more about their faith and practice with more conviction in the face of injustice.

In addition to the individual variation in how religious minority youth deal with social stressors, there is considerable diversity within the religious minority population. Many religious minorities in the U.S. are also immigrants or children of immigrants who may be dealing with being undocumented or have problems with their legal status. They may be under stress from adapting to a new culture or struggling with linguistic issues. Unlike previous waves of immigrants, today's immigrants vary considerably in their socioeconomic and educational status. Finally, many religious minority youth are also ethnic and religious minorities. But not all religious minority youth consider themselves minorities or are viewed by others as minorities, particularly if they are white and relatively discreet about their religious beliefs and practices. In brief, research on religious minority youths is generally sparse. We need to improve our collective understanding of the youth's complex interaction of his or her race, socioeconomic status, religious practices, peers, and community. For example, youth, particularly females, whose religious traditions promote modest dress may have difficulty feeling stylish. Students who are questioning their sexuality are generally at risk, but these concerns may be heightened if their faith tradition forbids homosexuality. All aspects of the students' social position and family, school, and community contexts may affect academic performance.

Academic effects

School districts maintain records about academic performance, mostly standardized test scores, and analyze them by demographic variables such as gender, race, and percentage of students on free or reduced-price lunch. But, because school officials do not monitor religious affiliation, no comparable records or analyses for religious status exist. Most research on religious minority youth considers specific religious groups, mostly Muslim, and looks at broader psychological issues such as well-being and religious identity in the face of religious discrimination and prejudice.

Research that explores academic achievement, religion, and minority status generally converge on two common findings:

* Youth who deal with challenging life task, such as discrimination or stigmatization, may be forced to expend significant psychological resources on the obstacles (Downey, Eccles, & Chatman, 2005), resources that may have been channeled more productively toward other aspects of academic achievement and social development.

* Numerous studies have found a positive connection between religious commitment for students of any religious affiliation and academic achievement across socioeconomic and ethnic groups (Barrett, 2010; Dowling & Scarlett, 2006).

Considerable research and theorizing has occurred to identify pathways that link religious commitment and academic achievement. These purported pathways include material support (e.g., tutoring), social support (e.g., mentoring from within the faith community), the sense of purpose and desire to achieve that religion may provide, and the dovetailing of literacy with religion.

Helping students connect home and school experiences can develop culturally relevant and meaningful bridges. But, because religion is considered private, teachers may not feel comfortable helping students capitalize on religiously rooted strengths. For example, religiously committed black children learn a variety of abstract discourse styles and Biblical stories through interaction with church elders whose familiarity with the Bible helps children's oral Scripture reading, but schools generally do not build on these skills (Heath, 1989).

Many faith doctrines and religious communities put a primary emphasis on education and teaching. Students may have strong reading or memorization skills, developed by memorizing verses of holy texts; they may have proficient reading skills in liturgical languages, such as Hebrew or Arabic. Many public school students attend weekend schools to provide additional religious training, especially if there is language instruction. Many students may have leadership and service roles at their places of worship. Imagine learning that a student with behavioral issues is also an usher at church. Educators can help students translate these personal strengths and experiences into classroom successes.

How educators can help

Students, families, and educators may delight in the religious and cultural diversity of their communities, but fear making mistakes on how best to promote understanding and respectfully navigate differences. As with all critical multicultural scholarship, open and respectful inquiry is fundamental. Some particular suggestions in helping support religious minority students and their peers include:

* Use diverse literary material and examples to create an inclusive classroom that reflects religious differences and religious similarities.

* Consider how school programs and policies, such as school dances, may exclude certain individuals or groups, and provide a range of alternatives.

* Provide multiple opportunities and formats--anonymous and public, individual and in groups--to solicit feedback from families about a range of issues, including religion, spirituality, and beliefs.

* Include all religious holidays on school calendars and bulletins, and keep them in mind when planning major tests, projects, and school events.

* Direct student discussion and expression in a manner that validates and expands student concerns and awareness. For example, a student's comment about religious dietary restrictions may lead to discussion of others with food allergies or diabetes.

* Establish safe routines--role playing and teacher narratives, for example--about how to express curiosity about religion. Ask others about matters of religious significance, and express differences in an agreeable manner.

Religious minority youth may be visible through their religiously distinctive dress or their religious practices. At times, a student's name may seem to carry religious significance, but teachers cannot determine by the name alone what is religiously meaningful to the student. Other religious minority students may be invisible, but still have important religious values and struggles within them. Many religious minority students struggle with classroom issues on a regular, perhaps even on a daily, basis without ever having spoken to a teacher or parent about their concerns. As with any sensitive topic in a classroom, the teacher has tremendous power to validate or deny, to recognize and illuminate or to ignore. The frenzied conversation may be about what students hope to get for Christmas. It may be about who is taking whom or wearing what to prom. Educators have a critical role and ability to broaden awareness by suggesting that while a lot of people seem excited, there may be different reasons why individuals may feel left out of the conversation. Through this gentle social engineering, teachers demonstrate how to make space at the table. Students like Ethan, Sameera, and Omid may feel more empowered to raise their concerns themselves, while also realizing that others are willing to share the onus of carving out space.


Barrett, B. (2010). Religion and habitus: Exploring the relationship between religious involvement and educational outcomes and orientations among urban African-American students. Urban Education, 45 (4), 448-479.

Dowling, E.M. & Scarlett, W.G. (Eds.). (2006). Encyclopedia of religious and spiritual development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Downey, G., Eccles, J.S., & Chatman, C. (2005). Navigating the future: Social identity, coping, and life tasks. New York, NY: Russell Sage.

Eck, D.L. (2002). A new religious America: How a "Christian country" has become the world's most religiously diverse nation. San Francisco, CA: Harper.

Heath, S.B. (1989). Oral and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty. American Psychologist, 44 (2), 367-373.

McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. Presented to the Working Papers Committee of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley, MA.

Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. (2008). U.S. religious landscape survey. Washington DC: Pew Research Center.

Schlosser, L.W. (2003). Christian privilege: Breaking a sacred taboo. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 31 (1), 44-51.

Sirin, S.R. & Fine, M. (2007). Hyphenated selves: Muslim-American youth negotiating identities on the fault lines of global conflict. Applied Developmental Science, 11 (3), 151-163.

Smith, C. & Denton, M.L. (2005). Soul searching: The religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

RELATED ARTICLE: The First Amendment to the Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

MONA M. ABO-ZENA is a research associate at Tufts University, Medford Mass. She was a PDK Emerging Leader in 2010-11.
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Author:Abo-Zena, Mona M.
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
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