ISU prof sees Christian privilege in public schools, offers advice for religious equity

AMES, Iowa -- About this time each year, many public schools across the country haul out Christmas decorations and celebrate some long-standing holiday traditions. More precisely, they exercise some obvious examples of Christian privilege, according to an Iowa State University professor who says he'd like to see school officials become more aware of their bias.

Warren Blumenfeld, an assistant professor of multicultural and international curriculum studies at Iowa State, detailed that bias in an article titled "Christian Privilege and the Promotion of 'Secular' and Not-So 'Secular' Mainline Christianity in Public Schooling and in the Larger Society," which was published in a recent edition of Equity & Excellence in Education, a professional journal. In it, he not only documents examples of Christian privilege -- which include the celebration of Christian holidays -- but also offers guidelines for bringing about more religious equity.

He has observed how many people see the celebration of Christian holidays in the public schools as having nothing to do with religion, and their related symbols and traditions not representing Christianity. "They argue that these are largely seasonal reminders and, as such, are part of 'American culture,'" said Blumenfeld.

"While some of the religious significance has diminished over time as traditional Christian religious practice has entered the public square, the clearly religious meanings, symbolism, positionality, and antecedents of these practices betray claims to mere secularism," he said. "The effect of the so-called 'secularization of religion' not only fortifies, but strengthens Christian privilege by perpetuating Christian influence in such a way as to avoid detection as religion or circumvent violating the constitutional requirements for the separation of religion and government. Christian dominance, therefore, is maintained by its relative invisibility. With this invisibility, privilege is neither analyzed nor scrutinized, neither interrogated nor confronted."

Christian provilege perpetuates despite court rulings

Blumenfeld maintains that Christian privilege continues in public schools, even though the Supreme Court has clarified the ways in which the First Amendment relates to public schools (Abington v. Schempp, 1963; Engel v. Vitale, 1962). The court ruled that schools may not sponsor religious practices, though they may teach about religion as an academic topic. In addition, while not ruling directly on the matter of religious holidays in the schools, the Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court decision (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 1980) that recognition of religious holidays may be constitutional when the purpose is to give secular instruction about religion or religious traditions rather than to promote any specific religious doctrine or practice.

While all schools are different and some methods may work better than others in bringing religious equity to individual schools, Blumenfeld provides the following foundational guidelines in his paper for educators and school administrators to consider:

  • Assessment. Hold public hearings and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of members of different faith communities and of non-believers.
  • Policies. Develop policies protecting students, faculty, staff and administrators of every (and no) faith from harassment, violence, and discrimination, and to provide equality of treatment.
  • Personnel Trainings. Offer training to all school personnel, including guidance counselors and social workers, in religious diversity and bullying prevention, and specifically to address the religious accommodation needs of students and school personnel.
  • Library Collections. Develop and maintain up-to-date and age appropriate collections of books, videos/DVDs, and other academic materials pertaining to world religions and non-believers.
  • Educational Forums. Organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to religious diversity and religious pluralism.
  • Curriculum and School Programs. Include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information regarding religious issues presented uniformly and without bias or judgment.
  • Adult Role Models. Recruit faculty and staff from disparate religious and spiritual backgrounds as well as non-believers to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
  • Teacher Certification. Include information and training on issues pertaining to religious diversity, religious oppression, and Christian privilege in college and university teacher education programs.
  • Teacher Continuing Self-Education. As a start to this process, educate yourself about world religions and history of religion and religious oppression in the United States and other countries throughout the world, as well as the needs and experiences of people from many religious and spiritual backgrounds.

Blumenfeld sees an inclusive model -- one that ensures individuals' and groups' freedom of as well as freedom from religion -- as a national goal of cultural and religious pluralism.

"Today, the United States stands as the most religiously diverse country in the world. This diversity poses great challenges as well as opportunities," said Blumenfeld. "To quote religious scholar Dana Eck, 'The presumption that America is foundationally Christian is being challenged, really for the first time. There is no going back.'"