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A Message from Our 2016 Adam Solomon Award Winner

Chris Murray

Chris Murray

This June, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) will be leading a historic new course on religious literacy education in our public schools. Thirty-five teachers will spend 45 hours touring, learning, discussing, and creating lessons that will increase teachers’ religious literacy and confidence in teaching about religion in public schools. Amid recent reports of increased bullying targeting schoolchildren from religious minorities, conference participants will investigate methods of effectively training students to analyze the role of religion in American public life.

The MCPS-developed course, Religious Literacy for Educators, will allow teachers from across the district to meet one another and learn from some of the nation’s finest religious studies scholars. Beginning June 27, the course will feature introductions from experts on Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Buddhism, as well as four site visits to places of worship. Teachers will also hear from Montgomery County and national leaders about the importance of having a more religiously literate community. The course has already received approval from both the County and the State and allows teachers to receive three credits for salary advancement.

If you are interested in learning more about creating a similar course or sharing ideas please feel free to contact myself or Ben Marcus, who in April, helped create at Prospect High School (outside Chicago) a conference on religious literacy education in public secondary schools with teachers, administrators, professors, and consultants from around the country. The conference connected these different constituencies to facilitate the development and implementation of constitutionally appropriate, robust lessons for teaching about religion. Participants were able to participate in groundbreaking model lesson plans created by local teachers John Camardella and Seth Brady, both of whom have received statewide recognition and awards for excellence in teaching.

Chris Murray
Walter Johnson High School, MCPS
Christopher.murray@walter.johnson.com

Benjamin Marcus
Newseum Institute
bmarcus@newseum.org

When Vaisakhi Is More Than a Holiday

Darbar Harmandir Sahib - the "Golden Temple"

Darbar Harmandir Sahib – the “Golden Temple”

Have you ever wished someone a happy Vaisakhi?

Most people have no idea that the Pentagon is holding a major celebration to celebrate Vaisakhi. Or that Vaisakhi is the birthday of the world’s fifth largest religion. Why? Because the Sikh community as a whole, is often ignored in this country. The time has come to know more about our Sikh neighbors.

Let’s start with the FBI’s most recent Hate Crimes Statistics (released 12/2014) because the findings are telling. Race is still the leading cause of hate crimes in the U.S., followed by sexual-orientation and religion. Among major religious groups, Jewish people are most likely to be attacked (60.3 percent) followed by Muslims (13.7 percent) and people from “other religions” (11.2 percent). Unfortunately, those statistics do not separately track anti-Sikh hate crimes, only including them within “other religions.” Fortunately, this practice has now come to an end. Following years of advocacy, the FBI is finally implementing a system to track anti-Sikh bias, along with bias against many other self-identified religious groups. It’s about time. Because the Sikh community is being attacked.

Last summer in New York City, Joseph Caleca yelled “Osama!” at Sandeep Singh before running him over and dragging Singh for 30 feet. Only days later, a group of teens, male and female, attacked another Sikh man walking to dinner with his mother. These are not isolated incidents. The Sikh community is repeatedly targeted by verbal and physical violence. Sometimes the perpetrators escape apprehension. But in the case of Sandeep Singh, community activism led to Caleca’s arrest and an indictment for attempted murder and hate crime charges.

Such incidents are only one way this community is singled out. Visibly distinct, observant Sikh men wear turbans and have uncut beards. In a society still grappling with diversity, it is therefore no surprise that Sikhs experience workplace discrimination, bias and stereotyping.

Consider New York’s Police Department. Its dress-code requires officers to wear religious head coverings beneath the uniform cap and to maintain short beards, measuring less than one millimeter. With few exceptions, the NYPD refuses to accommodate Sikhs, in contrast to police departments like the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington D.C., which began allowing Sikhs to wear turbans and have full beards in 2012.

There are also daily indignities (or micro-aggressions) that grate at the soul. Take the Sikh who goes to the hospital and is asked to complete the patient intake form. Often, it includes a question about religious preferences and provides a list of religious identities. Many patients find this practice welcoming, while the facility simultaneously learns about their possible needs. But if you’re Sikh, this is not necessarily your experience. Several NYC hewospitals continue to omit Sikhism on these forms, despite repeated requests for inclusion. So when a NYC Sikh patient is hospitalized, the only choice is “other” — even though more than 50,000 Sikhs live in NYC.

Such blatant disregard for an entire community is costly. In one NY health care facility, a nurse shaved and trimmed an elderly Sikh patient’s beard, eyebrows and mustache one month before his death. The patient was religiously mandated never to cut his hair, and his family, who had never seen him shaved or with trimmed hair, did not recognize him. The result, of course, was a law suit.

But perhaps most disturbing, is how Sikh children are tormented. For one Sikh student, this meant being held to the ground by a classmate who forcibly cut his hair. For other children, it means being taunted and called names like “terrorist” and “Osama.”

It does not have to be this way. We can stop acts of hatred and prevent bullying with the help of parents and teachers. Starting at a young age, children can learn that people have different ways of believing (or not believing). And holidays like Vaisakhi provide an easy opportunity for that teachable moment.

With institutional changes, we can improve our neighbors’ lives. What if the NYPD not only pursued hate crimes, but also had Sikh officers who understood the community being targeted? How much better would a Sikh patient’s health care be, if hospital staff knew that being Sikh meant that certain decisions about their care might be made — and knew enough to ask what was needed? And just think how our students would be better prepared as members of the global society, if they understood that diversity, including differences of belief, is not something to fear or hate?

The FBI and the Pentagon are taking steps toward improved relations with the Sikh community. By showing respect for Sikh traditions, they are standing up against bias, hatred and violence. This matters for all of us. Because no one is exempt from exclusion and violence. Today’s bystander may be tomorrow’s victim. And that means we must stand together now.

– Joyce S. Dubensky
CEO

News Roundup: Religion, Violence, and Norway, Plus Other Stories

In the news this week: the role of religion in the Norway tragedy, the Park51 developer hopes for peace, Belgium enacts a veil ban, Herman Cain issues an apology, and the San Francisco circumcision ban is stymied, for now.

The recent atrocity in Norway includes a wide range of complex religious sub-stories. Anders Breviek admitted to murdering over 90 people in order to display his opposition to the immigration of Muslims and the Norwegian government’s moderate policies (NY Times). Breivik also self-identifies as a Christian in his writing, but many are arguing that he is nothing of the sort (NY Times). If he had been Muslim with similar opinions, would anyone in the western world debate his true religiosity? Unrelated to Breviek’s beliefs and identity, many assumed that Islamic militants were responsible for the murders before any suspect had been identified. Now many in the Muslim community are wondering why members of their religion are immediately implicated in any terrorist activity (LA Times). 
 
The Huffington Post recently ran a story on the Park51 project and its developer, Sharif el-Gamal. Gamal is quietly maintaining that the project is a community center and welcoming place for people of all faiths or none, but he is concerned about what might happen in the media and community in the weeks leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11. He believes there is a possibility of negative national attention similar to what took place last summer. Prepare New York, of which Tanenbaum is a founding member, is creating resources and promoting events that build an environment of respect around the 10th anniversary.
 
Belgium is the second European Union country to enact a law banning veils. According to the BBC, Belgium's law bans any clothing that obscures the identity of the wearer in places like parks and on the street. The law was passed almost unanimously with only two law makers abstaining. Two women are challenging the law in the country’s constitutional court.
 
Herman Cain, presidential hopeful, released a statement apologizing for his negative statements about Muslims after meeting with four Muslim leaders recently. Cain had said that communities should have the right to ban Islamic mosques (to block the influence of sharia law) and that he would not want a Muslim in his administration. He recognized that these positions were unconstitutional and that Muslims have the right to practice freely in the United States (USA Today).
 
And here is an update on the California circumcision ban from the Jewish Daily Forward:
A San Francisco Superior Court judge tentatively ruled that an initiative banning circumcisions for anyone under 18 be removed from the November ballot.  The July 27 ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed last month, which argued that state law bars municipalities from banning legitimate medical practices.  In her ruling, the Bay Area newspaper j. reported, Judge Loretta Giorgi argued that the proposed ballot initiative is “expressly pre-empted” by state law because the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that “circumcision is a widely practiced medical procedure.”
  

A Presidential Nominee Disparages Islam and Mosques: News Roundup

In the news this week: Presidential candidate Herman Cain promotes communities’ right to ban mosques, Representative King announces a third hearing, a proposed bill may block California circumcision bans, and other stories.

Herman Cain has arguably made the biggest splash of the Republican nominees. This past week Mr. Cain said that communities should be able to ban mosques during an interview (HuffingtonPost). He continued by saying, “Islam combines church and state. They're using the church part of our First Amendment to infuse their morals in the community.” Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, wrote to Cain relaying his concern and consternation at Mr. Cain’s statements. In particular, Gaddy stressed that Cain is contributing to irrational fear and is “just plain wrong” about Islam being both a religion and a set of laws (American Baptist Press).

In other political news, “U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday she's hopeful that a religious tolerance agreement between the West and Islamic countries will end efforts to criminalize blasphemy that threaten freedom of expression. At an interfaith conference in Turkey, Clinton said an initiative by the U.S., the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference will promote religious freedom without compromising free speech.” (Houston Chronicle)

Rep Peter King (R-NY) announced a third hearing on the radicalization of the Muslim-American community scheduled for July 27th (House Committee on Homeland Security). According to King, this hearing will, “will examine Somalia-based terrorist organization al-Shabaab’s ongoing recruitment, radicalization, and training of young Muslim-Americans and al-Shabaab’s linking up with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).” Adam Serwer of The American Prospect supports this topic in contrast to those of the previous two hearings. He argues that al-Shabaab’s relative success in recruiting Americans is alarming and worthy of congressional investigation, but is concerned about King’s approach to the issue. 

The Huffington Post reports:
Two California lawmakers have introduced a bill that would pre-empt local governments from passing laws banning male circumcision and limit the enacting of such legislation to the state.
 
Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, says the bill, co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, was filed as an urgency statute, which means it could become law immediately if it is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
 
In other news: