Let me give you a picture of what growing up as a Jewish kid in Suwanee, Georgia, looked like. I lived on a street with three churches on it, but the closest synagogue was 40 minutes away. I went to a school that made me pledge allegiance to “one nation, under god” every morning, and then I walked by students wearing cross necklaces. I knew maybe three Jewish kids in my entire town, and none of us were very open about it — for fear of anti-Semitism.
I would go to Christmas parties before winter break. When we got back to school, I would be asked what presents I got for Christmas, and have to choose whether I wanted to explain that I was Jewish or just tell them what I got for Hanukkah. My sister had to awkwardly sit through Christian prayers before every track meet, theater performance and swim team banquet, making eye contact with the other non-Christians around the room and waiting for it to end.
I was ecstatic when my school put on “The Grinch” as a school play last year and they finally went through the script and replaced the word Christmas with “the holidays” every time it was mentioned. But as rehearsal wore on, it was slowly changed back, with excuses like: “It’s not a big deal” and “It interrupts the rhyme scheme.” In the final performance, I had to sit off stage while people danced to “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” It’s not easy to live in a society that so consistently under-represents and oppresses your culture, and one of the most overt examples of that is religious clubs in public schools.
Religious clubs sound like a great idea, in theory. You create an environment in school where kids can share their beliefs with other students, and create strong bonds between them. There are laws in place— most notably the Equal Access Act — that dictate that any student can start their own club, that the clubs must be optional, open to all students, not required for any classes, and that the school can’t shut down any clubs due to their religious affiliation.
The problem with these clubs is that they will always under-represent the minorities. Clubs can only be formed if there’s a steady number of students who attend, a location to hold meetings, support from parents for funding, and in most schools, a teacher to sponsor — for supervision as well as a classroom in which to gather. When my sister tried to form a Jewish club at North Gwinnett High School in the 2019-2020 school year, she had to be sponsored by a random teacher who had no personal connection to the club, chosen solely on the fact that my sister asked her, and that she had enough time. Due to both the low Jewish population at the school, kids not feeling “Jewish enough” to be in the club and many students wanting to distance themselves from the minority, the club only got four or five attendees, on a good day. Less than one year after she graduated, the club no longer exists. Meanwhile, the school has two other thriving religious clubs, and — no surprise — both are Christian. Even if the Jewish club had taken off, what about Islamic students? Atheist, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist? It would be impossible to create successful clubs for everyone.
Even so, creating separate religious clubs for everyone doesn’t solve the problem. Clubs are the place where most kids make their friends. It’s a fun environment where the same students meet every week, so of course that group often becomes close. However, if every religion forms its own group while in their clubs, that will carry over to academics and divide kids along their belief systems. Religious beliefs are a personal choice that have no place in public schools, and no attempt to combine them has any kind of chance.
One of my Mom’s favorite phrases is “bigger kids, bigger problems.” Behaviors that people learn when they’re young are only going to multiply as they get older, when they have more power. It’s a logical concept, but it’s also easy to say “Oh, they’re just kids. They don’t know better.” They’re not going to what learn what the right thing to do is unless someone bothers to tells them.
For example, I once mentioned to one of my friends that having a “Christmas party” is a little insensitive, and I got the classic response: “It’s not a big deal”. Since it’s hard to argue when someone completely disregards and minimizes my feelings like that, I shut up. But when when those kids grow up believing that “It’s not a big deal” and get a job in the school system, they’ll continue to implement these small religious references and promote more large scale under-representation. It’s an unending, vicious cycle. On the other side of it, religious minorities are taught not to speak up, and many never do.
While you probably can’t just shut down all of the religious activities going on in every school in Georgia (unless you have that kind of power in the education system, in which case, please use it), you can change the way you respond to religious minorities. The most important thing you can do is listen. It’s difficult to say something when the only issue is feeling “uncomfortable” about something going on in school, especially when it comes to religion. But these concerns are completely legitimate, so take them seriously. Another thing you can do, even when no one complains, is just to be sensitive. If you see something and you think that’s probably kind of offensive, then don’t do it. It can be as small as saying winter break instead of Christmas break, but trust me, it is a big deal.
Through religious clubs, the education system is normalizing a culture of under-representation of religious minorities among kids from a young age. If this persists, then growing up as a religious minority will be just as difficult for the next generation, the one after that, and the one after that.