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Take this Non-Expert Advice

Take this Non-Expert Advice
By: Mark E. Fowler

Overview: How to teach about religious diversity without being a world religions “expert.”

Editor’s Note: This blog post was written in response to a request from a participant in our spring webinar with Teaching Tolerance, Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for High School Educators. Click here to watch the recording via a free registration process.

Have you ever had to teach a subject you weren’t very familiar with? Outside of class, you were reading the textbook just ahead of your students, asking other teachers and community members for help and looking for digestible summaries of topics when trying to prepare. During the trainings and webinars that Tanenbaum provides, it’s clear that many participant teachers feel this way about teaching the major world religions. They often ask for more information and have said that their lack of knowledge about different religions prevents them from broaching the subject at all.

Teaching about religion may sound difficult if you do not have a background in religious studies or a personal affiliation.  But Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance believe that educators are completely capable of addressing religious diversity in a respectful, informed way – expert or not!  What’s more, teaching about religious and nonreligious identities helps students develop religious literacy – a vital skill for the twenty-first century.

Developing religious literacy includes a basic understanding of the histories, central texts, beliefs, practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions, as they arose out of and continue to shape particular social, historical and cultural contexts. This literacy equips our students with the ability to get along and work with a diversity of identities.

According to Tanenbaum’s education consultant, Kim Keiserman, “As teachers, we have to become accustomed to learning new things along with our students. We may know some things in our subject area very well, and other areas are less familiar to us.” When teaching about diverse beliefs, which serve as important personal identity markers for billions of people, it is not possible to know the practices and traditions of every person. Tanenbaum’s World Religions Fact Sheet gives teachers a general overview of the world’s major religions, but when it comes to teaching about religious diversity, the method of presenting information may be equally as important as your personal mastery of the topic, maybe even more so. Fact sheets like this one show the vast diversity and scale of the major world religions, which may seem intimidating at first. As with all subjects, your knowledge and comfort with teaching about religion can grow over time.

We emphasize that teachers don’t have to be “experts” as long as they follow good practices:

  • Ensure a safe, inclusive classroom environment when discussing religious differences by following Tanenbaum’s Seven Principles for Inclusive Education.
  • Communicate with parents about the learning objectives, explaining that their children will be learning about religious differences, not being indoctrinated into different religions.
  • Allow students to explore their own identities, recognizing that the more they understand themselves, the more they can understand others.
  • Learn alongside your students with up-close exposure to diverse traditions. Expose them to the “lived religion” of real people by allowing them to read primary sources and personal stories, interact with guest speakers, interview community members and take field trips to houses of worship.
  • Explore the commonalities among different belief systems, as well as the differences. Tanenbaum’s Shared Visions project reminds us that the world’s religions share many core values. Read shared visions on the value of education here.
  • Examine your assumptions about religion. The American Academy of Religions suggests that teachers “examine what assumptions they harbor about religion generally and religious traditions in particular.” Teachers who are aware of their own biases will be better able to overcome them and present facts and ideas in an objective manner.

In a previous blog post, we encouraged teachers to coach students to “be honest about the limits of our understanding. … While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives.” This advice is relevant for teachers as well. As you discuss religious traditions in the classroom, be wary of the burden of being a spokesperson—the assumption that any one person’s perspective represents the experiences or beliefs of an entire group. Just as we may not know all of the answers to questions about a particular faith, no one person can be expected to speak as the authority on his or her faith tradition.

Navigating the teaching of world religions can be hard for teachers who are used to having all the right answers about a particular topic. However, the study of religious diversity provides an excellent opportunity to model attitudes of respectful curiosity to students. If you don’t assume you already know everything about a group of people, then you will be less likely to form stereotypes or hurtful generalizations. With this attitude in mind, students can follow suit.

Fowler is the managing director of programs at the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding. He would like to acknowledge the significant contribution of Rachel Sumption to this blog post.

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree

Agree to (Respectfully) Disagree
by Marisa Fasciano

Overview: How to teach students to respectfully engage with peers of differing religious belief systems.

Most educators would agree that it’s important for students to respect classmates with different religious or nonreligious beliefs. But what if the doctrine or practices of the belief system in question contradict students’ values or marginalize or limit their identity group? Or what if a student has experienced microaggressions or harassment from peers of a different religious tradition? How do you respond when a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?”

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals make up one identity group that has experienced unequal treatment within certain religious traditions. According to a 2013 survey of LGBT Americans by the Pew Research Center, a vast majority describe Islam (84 percent), the Mormon Church (83 percent), the Catholic Church (79 percent) and evangelical churches (73 percent) as unfriendly toward them. This perception is corroborated by another Pew survey of the general American public. Although support for gay marriage continues to increase (just over half of Americans favor it), “opposition to gay marriage—and to societal acceptance of homosexuality more generally—is rooted in religious attitudes, such as the belief that engaging in homosexual behavior is a sin.”

If your students feel excluded or offended by faith-based rules and opinions, you can still encourage respectful conversations on religious diversity. Here’s how.

Distinguish People From Doctrines and Practices

Rather than asking your students to respect all belief systems, ask them to practice respecting all people, regardless of their belief system. Students don’t need to agree with their classmates’ religious or nonreligious beliefs, but they should be expected to interact with them in ways that are constructive and civil. In a previous blog post, we highlighted the multiple facets of a person’s identity. Pointing out similarities in some facets amidst differences in others can help students engage in these positive interactions.

Avoid Assumptions Based on Religious Identity

Just because an individual belongs to a particular belief system doesn’t necessarily mean he or she agrees with all of its tenets and practices. In fact, in some cases, a majority of adherents disagree with decisions of the leadership. For instance, a survey by Univision found that 59 percent of Catholics in the United States think the church should let women become priests, a belief that contradicts the current decision of church leadership.

Within Islam, vocal and active feminist movements aim to counteract misogynistic interpretations of Islamic texts by male imams. Rather than abandoning their faith in the quest for gender equality, many Muslim women combat oppression by appealing to Islamic texts and laws. For example, one of Tanenbaum’s Peacemakers in Action, Jamila Afghani, created the first holistic gender-sensitive imam training program in Kabul, Afghanistan.

By exposing your students to diverse perspectives within a particular faith, you help diminish the likelihood that they’ll incorrectly attribute specific attitudes and opinions to all individual members of a religion.

Keep in Mind That Emotional Reactions Have a History

Prior to walking into your classroom, students may have experienced bullying or negative comments about themselves and the belief systems to which they belong. In extreme cases, teachers have even made questionable or inappropriate comments to students about their religious traditions. An awareness of this potential history will put students’ emotional reactions into context and underscore the importance of creating inclusive, respectful learning environments where students are encouraged to abide by established rules of engagement.

Provide Tools for Respectful Disagreement

Educators can give students tools to respectfully disagree with people of different faiths, even if those in marginalized groups are the ones being disrespectful. By sharing these tools ahead of time, before conflicts based on religious identity arise, you will be better prepared to address and resolve such conflicts in the moment. You can refer back to what was already discussed, rather than having to come up with a response on the fly.

One tool that establishes a firm foundation for respectful disagreement is Tanenbaum’s Respecting Each Other lesson plan, which asks students to define what respect looks, feels and sounds like, and then to create their own rules of respect. If you spot any behavior that breaks these rules, you can correct it with greater credibility than if you had made up the rules yourself. Students can—and often do—take on the role of enforcer, holding each other accountable for honoring the agreements they’ve made together.

Krister Stendahl, an accomplished theologian, created another helpful tool that’s specific to religious differences. Here are his Three Rules of Religious Understanding:

  1. When you are trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  1. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  1. Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this, Stendahl means that you should be willing to recognize elements that you admire in the other religious tradition or faith and that you wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

If everyone obeyed these rules, what a more peaceful world it would be! The unfortunate reality is that, in spite of an individual’s best efforts to follow guidelines for respect, the reactions of others may be angry and intolerant. When a student asks, “They don’t respect me, so why should I respect them?” remind him to distinguish people from tenets and practices, avoid assumptions, consider the emotional history and remember the tools of respectful disagreement.

Fasciano is an education program associate at Tanenbaum.

Teaching Diverse Beliefs in Homogenous Classrooms by Sara Wicht

Here are some suggestions for teaching about diverse beliefs—religious and nonreligious—in classrooms where that type of diversity might not be present.

After our recent webinar, Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, participants expressed concern about how to teach about a diversity of religious and nonreligious beliefs in a homogenous classroom. We feel this may be a worry shared by other members of the Teaching Tolerance and Tanenbaum communities and would like to make some recommendations.

Step One: Ask yourself, “What does diversity mean?” 

Our individual biases may include looking at diversity through a single lens. At Teaching Tolerance, we sometimes hear from teachers that it can be difficult to include multicultural representation in all-white classrooms. However, just because a classroom has only white students does not mean it is not diverse. Diversity goes beyond a single identifier.

Diversity includes multiple categories—race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability/disability, religion/belief system—and consists of the characteristics we use to define ourselves as well those constructed by others. Educators can effectively teach about the diversity of religious and nonreligious belief by teaching this content with an eye toward the multiple facets of students’ identities, visible and invisible.

Pointing out these multiple facets establishes intersectionality* as a valuable lens for educators and students alike. Even in homogenous classrooms, a focus on intersectionality helps build awareness of the many categories of identity that make each person and his or her experiences unique. Doing so fosters a culture of respect and prepares students to be respectfully curious about beliefs similar to and different from their own.

Step Two: Point out the diversity within diversity.

Being aware of the diversity within religions and belief systems is critical to continued learning about one another and the world. For example, as illustrated by a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Foundation, there’s tremendous diversity within Christianity. Christian traditions in the United States include mainline Protestant churches, evangelical Protestant churches, Catholic churches, Mormon churches, Greek Orthodox churches and historically black churches, among many others.

The diversity within Christianity extends even further. For example, the Pew study reveals 16 unique affiliations within evangelical Protestant churches and six within historically black churches. What we may have thought to be a homogenous belief system is, in fact, quite diverse.

Step Three: Point to the diversity of belief systems—nationally.

In addition to highlighting the diversity found within individual belief systems, it’s important to expose students to national trends and to the diversity that exists beyond their classroom. The students in our classrooms at large represent a variety of unique identities that are different from and more diverse than those of students even 10 years ago.

A 2014 Pew report indicates that, not only is the Millennial generation (the youngest adult generation, 18 to 33-year-olds) the most racially and ethnically diverse ever, but they are also less religiously affiliated than their older counterparts. Among religiously unaffiliated Millennials, three in 10 describe themselves as atheists or agnostics; the remainder say they practice no particular religion.

Step Four: Use texts as windows.

Another way to expose students in more homogenous classrooms to religious and nonreligious diversity is through texts. Texts can function as windows—opportunities to look into the lives of others, including the religious and nonreligious beliefs and practices of people outside their experience. As demonstrated in the webinar Religious Diversity in the Classroom: Applications for Elementary Educators, conversations spurred by the voices in texts allow students to engage with new and multiple perspectives and identities.

One example of a text that can offer a window for students unfamiliar with the Hutterite faith is A War on the Peaceful. This story describes a religious group emigrating from Germany to the United States in order to seek religious asylum and practice their way of life in peace, only to be met by continued persecution. Another window text option for students unfamiliar with Islam is Zahrah’s Hijab. This story illustrates how preconceptions about religion can lead us to behave cruelly but can also help us understand each other better.

Additional titles can be found in the after-session pack for the Applications for Elementary Educators webinar as well as in Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s K-12 curriculum.

* the social, economic and political reality that identity categories and systems of oppression connect, overlap and influence one another

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

A flawed message from Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education

This week Montgomery County Public Schools’ Board of Education missed the mark when they removed all references to religious holidays in the 2015-2016 school calendar. Following requests to include Muslim holidays, the Board voted instead to erase all religious holidays from the school calendar- conveying a message that religious differences are too toxic to touch.

The stakes are high – not only for Montgomery County but for classrooms across the nation. By choosing to ignore religious differences, these schools are sending a flawed message in three key ways. First, religious differences do exist and they can’t be papered over. Second, recognizing, understanding and even appreciating religious and other differences are key skills for any student who hopes to succeed in the 21st century. And finally, truly educated people recognize that religion is a force in society and an important identifier for many people – one that influences the arts, history, social discourse and even politics and policies.

By papering over our religious differences, Mongomery County’s Board of Education is turning away from its responsibilities to educate while simultaneously masking reality and stirring fears. To keep our schools from becoming a breeding ground for the bullies and haters of tomorrow, public schools need to help students explore and appreciate religious differences.

We call on the Montgomery County Board of Education to respectfully acknowledge the many ways the people in its community are different – and to teach their students that these differences are normal.

At Tanenbaum, our curricula, webinars and free lesson plans offer educators “how-to” guidance in building respectful classrooms that celebrate cultural and religious diversity.

How Do I Ask That?

How Do I Ask That?
Sara Wicht

Overview: Encourage students to respectfully ask questions and make statements about other belief systems.

Editor’s note: This post is part two of a three-part series that answers questions posed by participants in Fostering a Culture of Respect, a joint webinar with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding that addresses how educators can help their students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing belief systems. The first blog responded to the question: “How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?”

In the webinar Fostering a Culture of Respect, one participant asked, “How can I encourage students to respectfully ask questions about identities different from their own?”

It’s important to remind students that identities consist of various characteristics, such as gender, ethnicity, race, language, sexual orientation, family composition, relationship status, religion/belief system and socioeconomic status. We use these characteristics to define ourselves, and others often use them to construct an impression of our identities. Yet, these impressions are also informed by what we don’t know and by our implicit biases.

Take, for example, a recent survey from the Pew Research Center measuring familiarity and warmness toward various religious and nonreligious groups in the United States. Jews, Catholics and evangelical Christians received the “warmest” ratings. We know, however, that our classrooms also include children of Mormon, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu faith, among others, as well as atheist children—children whose belief systems received “colder, more negative” ratings.

The Pew survey also reports that personally knowing someone from a religious group is linked to having more positive views of that group. The inverse is true, too. Not knowing someone can lead to more negative impressions and opinions.

These types of biases seep into classrooms, and it’s important to address them with students—through formal instruction and in moments when you observe students uncomfortably questioning or critiquing their peers’ belief systems. Consider the following three scenarios.

Scenario 1: Before class starts, you overhear a group of students talking about their weekend activities. One student enthusiastically shares that she had a great weekend at a church shut-in with her younger brother. Another student responds critically, “Weird! What would you do for a whole weekend at church?”

Scenario 2: In a unit on Mayan religion, you explain that native Mesoamerican people worshiped deities found in nature —the sun, rain and moon. A student in class shares that his family doesn’t go to church but are devoted to the Earth. The class laughs.

Scenario 3: Most of your students are Catholics or evangelical Christians. You have one Muslim student who wears a hijab. In class one day, a student asks her, “Wouldn’t you love it if you didn’t have to wear that?”

Asking questions about belief systems different from their own can be difficult for students. Insensitive questions or statements and defensive responses are neither entirely uncommon nor always intentional. But how might a teacher respond to the above scenarios?

Scenario 1: Tell students that, instead of leading with a judgmental word or statement, they can begin with, “That’s different from what I’ve ever done.” This type of reaction will help build sensitivity and respect and can prevent the questioned students from being on the defensive. Encourage students to follow up with, “Tell me more.”

Scenario 2: Deal with the laughter right away by stating that put-downs will not be tolerated in the classroom. Follow up with, “I think we can find many differences in our belief systems, but these differences add to the richness and diversity of our class.” Tell students that, instead of laughing, they could have asked, “What are some of your family’s traditions?” and “How do you celebrate the Earth?”

Scenario 3: Remind students that they can express their curiosity in a thoughtful and respectful manner. For example, they might say, “What’s it like to wear a hijab every day?” Or, “What is the meaning behind the hijab?” You can also encourage students to connect with their classmates by sharing similar experiences. For example a student might say, “I wear a St. Christopher medal around my neck because my family believes he protects us.”

Having in-class conversations about what constitutes respectful statements and questions can be a turning point for students. Not only do they offer students an opportunity to weigh in with any concerns or questions, but they also help build a respectful school climate—even when students find themselves in discussions about belief systems on their own.

Stay tuned for our third blog answering participants’ questions. It will address how to include nonreligious students in classroom discussions about religion.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems

Responding With Empathy and Respect to Belief Systems
By: Sara Wicht
Senior Manager for Teaching and Learning at Teaching Tolerance

Overview: Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance share tips for coaching students during class discussions on religious and nonreligious beliefs.

This year, Teaching Tolerance teamed up with the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding to bring educators a webinar series called Religious Diversity in the Classroom.

The second webinar in the series, Fostering a Culture of Respect, offered ways for educators to help students feel safe, supported and respected when discussing religious and nonreligious belief systems. The webinar and after-session pack are available online if you have not had a chance to look at these resources yet.

Participants asked some great questions during and after Fostering a Culture of Respect, and we’d like to respond to a few we think are relevant to many educators. In this blog, we’ll address this question:
How can I coach students to respond to others with empathy and respect?

Hearing these prompts from you can help students engage more empathetically and respectfully during conversations about religious and nonreligious beliefs.

1. “Find out more.” Cultivate an inquisitive attitude in students by encouraging them to seek out information from a variety of voices within a given belief system. Ask students to formulate and pose open-ended questions. Here are some examples of questions that can guide research and in-class discussions:

  • What is the origin of the religious or nonreligious belief system?
  • In what parts of the world is the belief system practiced?
  • What are some texts that describe or include the belief system?
  • What are the foundations of the belief system?
  • How is the belief system perceived around the world?
  • Do you know anyone who practices this belief system? What do they say about what they believe?

2. “Be aware of the pitfalls of easy comparisons.” When dealing with academic content related to religion, students will encounter ideas about deities, time, the purpose of life, who we are as individuals and who we are as members of our communities, among others. These ideas may be hard to grasp or may feel foreign to students because they have developed out of many traditions, which are sometimes very different from students’ individual traditions.

Students may attempt to contextualize these new ideas by comparing them to concepts from their own traditions or cultural practices. Although this is a helpful practice in gaining a better understanding of ourselves through the exploration of the world around us, it is important they understand and discuss religious and nonreligious views without distorting or oversimplifying them. Comparisons not given thoughtful inquiry can lead to stereotypes and stereotyping. That means not making hasty comparisons between belief systems or using comparisons as the go-to way to discuss another belief system.

3. “Avoid generalized or simplified statements.” These types of statements imply easy answers such as “Islam is …” or “Hinduism means … ” or “Atheists think … ” Instead, when discussing religious and nonreligious beliefs with students, remind them that religions are internally diverse, dynamic and embedded in culture. Use sources that reflect and provide examples of these qualities.

Students can practice being more nuanced in their thinking by articulating the subtleties they see. For example, they might say, “This text presents Islam as …” or “The author here indicates that … ” Many religious traditions use storytelling to illustrate central concepts, such as parables in Christianity or Native American oral histories. These can also be great sources for literacy instruction on imagery, symbolism and allusion—and help students to point to nuances in meaning, interpretation and practice.

4. “See religious and nonreligious traditions as diverse and dynamic.” If students are critical of all or part of a particular belief system because it contradicts their values, ask them to find out more about how different adherents of that belief system criticize or propose changing the religion or practices in question. Emphasize, too, that religious and nonreligious belief systems are internally diverse. In Hinduism, for example, some have a personal god and others deny the presence of a deity. Find diverse voices from within the belief system being explored.

5. “Be honest about the limits of our understanding.” Acknowledge and help students to accept that there are limits to our understanding about belief systems. While we can learn a lot about them, we cannot completely understand the lived experiences of people or how their belief system influences their identity and daily lives. It’s also important not to turn individual students into spokespersons of particular religious or nonreligious beliefs.

Stay tuned for additional follow-up blogs that address participants’ questions. The next one will answer this question: How can I respectfully ask questions about identities different from my own?

Wicht is the senior manager for teaching and learning at Teaching Tolerance. 

 

 

 

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Find out what it means to you

In the middle of a lesson, one of your students raises her hand and asks, “Isn’t there only one God?” Another student says, “That’s stupid! There is no god.”

How can your response help both of these students feel safe, supported and respected? How do you encourage them to be respectfully curious about each other’s ideas? 

By creating a classroom culture in which religious diversity is accepted. 

That may sound complicated, but Tanenbaum and Teaching Tolerance show you how in the second part of our FREE Religious Diversity in the Classroom webinar series:Fostering a Culture of Respect.

Participants in the webinar will learn:

  • strategies for creating classroom environments that reflect religious diversity;
  • tips for responding to religious intolerance in the classroom; and
  • approaches for supporting students’ religious and non-religious identities.
This beginner-level webinar is designed for educators of all grades and subjects.
Register early to reserve your space! You have two options: Wednesday, Aug. 20 from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. EST or Thursday, Aug. 21 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. EST.

Don’t forget to watch this recording of the first webinar in the Religious Diversity in the Classroom series, What’s law got to do with it

Questions? Email education@tanenbaum.org.

Free Islamic Peace Education Report

IPR

On July 28, many Muslims in the  United States and across the  globe will be celebrating the  conclusion of Ramadan, the    holiday of Eid-al-Fitr.

The Eid-al-Fitr is the festival  and/or feast of the breaking of  the fast, a time of mutual  acknowledgement for Muslims  who have been fasting  throughout the country and  around the world (depending on  their time zone).

To mark the Eid, we would like to share one of our blessings with you: what we learned when we convened four Islamic peace educators from vastly different backgrounds for a day-long exchange on their work in Islamic peace education.

The peace educators shared how they incorporate the topic of peace into their teaching. They shared their stories
and some of their Islamic peace education initiatives.

We – and they – learned from each other’s triumphs and challenges.

Participants included:

  • Jamila Afghani (Peacemaker in Action, 2008) from Kabul, Afghanistan;
  • Azhar (Azi) Hussain (Peacemaker in Action, 2006) from Dubai, UAE and Pakistan;
  • Sarrah Buker from Holmdel, New Jersey; and
  • Rabia Terri Harris from Stony Point, New York.

Today, we are excited to announce the release of Tanenbaum’s Islamic Peace Education report. The report traces each participant’s method and experience in advancing peaceful education from an Islamic perspective, often in the face of suspicion or adversity.

Download the report to learn more about this innovative information exchange.

We Are All Human Beings

Despite the rockets and the airstrikes wreaking havoc in Israel and Gaza, Peacemaker in Action Yehezkel Landau’s organization Open House held its annual Summer Peace Camp. Seventy Arab and Jewish children gathered at the peace education center in Ramle, Israel did what all children should do during the summer – they had fun together.

While the latest war in Gaza further complicates hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, a twelve-year-old camper relays her belief that there can one day be peace – by reminding us of what we too often forget in times of conflict:

“We are all human beings.”

To read more about this lesson in perseverance, click here for Open House’s July 2014 newsletter, Summer Peace Camp in the Midst of War.

Summer Peace Camp in the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam.

Summer Peace Camp in the mixed Jewish-Arab village of Neve Shalom/Wahat as-Salaam.

Top five news stories you need to know.

Here are the top stories about religion that you need to know from May 17-May 23, 2014:

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation • Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath • Vaccination exemption issues raising discrimination concerns • U.S. agency urges Myanmar to scrap proposed religion laws • Religious freedom linked to economic growth and innovation

The Headwrap Expo: Shifting the Conversation
On June 8  in Dearborn, Michigan, the 2014 Headwrap Expo celebrated interfaith dialog, fashion, and culture. Billed as “the art of headwrapping and scarf styling,” the Headwrap Expo was presented by the organization Beautifully Wrapped. The organization’s founder, Zarinah El-Amin Naeem, explained how the Expo is a celebration of “fusion — looking at how different cultural aspects, different things that people wear in different parts of the world are adopted across into other cultures.” Naeem explained how the Expo has broad cultural appeal and moves beyond fashion to address issues of unity. 

“It’s an intercultural, multi-faith event that brings together all these different groups…We have the Sikh Indians, we have Muslims, we have Christians, we have Jews, we have African Americans, African immigrants, everybody coming together. Once we’re there, we share, we talk about love, we have workshops, we have fashion stylings, fashion shows throughout the day. It’s a whole affair.”

Orthodox Jewish woman says that school fired her for observing Sabbath
Ellen Gastwirth, 41, was hired in 2005 as Director of Education at Temple Judea, a reformed  Jewish synagogue on Long Island. Gastwirth first encountered resistance to her Orthodox observance of the Sabbath when Rabbi Todd Chizner was hired the following year. Her requests for holiday time off were met with animosity. For example, in 2008, Rabbi Chizner questioned her observance by asking “What do you people do on that day that would prevent you from being here?” Harassment from the board of directors and the Rabbi led to the termination of her employment and a new Brooklyn Federal Court lawsuit.

Vaccination Exemption Issues Raising Discrimination Concerns
Two recent court cases address discrimination issues as they relate to objections to vaccination due to religious beliefs.

In Philips v. City of New York, parents argued that their children are unfairly discriminated against. While their children’s school district allows vaccination refusals based on religious beliefs, documentation is required that supports and explains the religious objection. Students that receive accommodation must stay home when another student at the school acquires an illness that is vaccine-protected. A federal judge rejected the parent’s claims, ruling that the First Amendment’s Free Exercise clause does not provide exemption from vaccination requirements.

In Valent v. Board of Review, Department of Labor, New Jersey Appeals Court ruled that a hospital employee who was fired for refusing vaccination is entitled to unemployment benefits. The hospital offers vaccine exemptions to employees for religious beliefs, however, they denied an exemption to the plaintiff because the employee did not object to vaccination due to religious reasons. The court ruled that this discrimination lacked justification and violates the First Amendment.

U.S. Agency Urges Myanmar to Scrap Proposed Religion Laws
In Myanmar, laws have been drafted that intend to protect Buddhists, the country’s majority, by regulating marriages and conversations between people of different faiths.

The U.S. State Department stated that the draft laws should be withdrawn and have “no place in the 21st century”. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom believes that these laws encourage violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minority groups. Additionally, the Commission stated that if these draft laws are passed, Washington “should factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship with Burma (Myanmar).”

Religious Freedom Linked to Economic Growth and Innovation
The Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion recently published a study that reviewed GDP growth in 2011 across 173 countries. GDP growth was compared to additional data including religious restrictions and the levels of economic and business related freedoms for each country.

Authored by researchers at Brigham Young University’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, the study concludes that countries that allow greater freedom of religion are more likely to have economic growth and innovation.

The Religious Freedom & Business Foundation commented on the report findings by stating, “As the world navigates away from years of poor economic performance, religious freedom may be an unrecognized asset to economic recovery and growth.” Additionally the foundation explained that hostility and restrictions based on religion can create “climates that can drive away local and foreign investment, undermine sustainable development, and disrupt huge sectors of economies”