Religion and the law: Unveiling religion in the public sphere

Visibly nervous

In 1963 when the Supreme Court banned prayer from the public schools, it was not because the Court was against religion. The ban occurred to protect the rights of all Americans, including those who are small in number, e.g., atheists. It was not the intent to rid the Country of religion. In fact, case after case in the higher courts have established in opinion the dangers related to ridding the schools of all mention of God is that it “establishes by its absence a secular humanist religion that is State sponsored.”

Unfortunately, in the lower level courts and on Main Street this understanding that these boundaries were drawn to safeguard even the smallest religious minority has gone misunderstood. Rather, it has translated in a manner to skirt the rights of the religious. The fears expressed by those understanding the law that this may cause another religion to take rise – that of human secularism – seemingly got it correct since 1963. With its rise and seeming domination, the rights of the religious, those who believe in a Supreme Being, are now suffering. Some Christian groups have argued that the lack of remembrance of God has contributed to the rise in crime, violence and unwed pregnancies.

There has been an increasing discrimination toward those who would show outwardly that they are religious. In New York a teenage boy is suspended from school for donning his rosary, a symbol for Catholics of religious devotion. The school claimed it was “gang related.” In Michigan, a Muslim woman was asked to remove her headscarf in court. The case filed against the judge in this case was dismissed in federal court on the grounds that the judge claimed he did not know of any religious significance to the head–covering. It is difficult to believe that in a state with one of the largest Muslim populations in the country, a judge had no idea that her head-scarf had some kind of significant meaning. It is troubling having the knowledge that someone presides over cases of a community about which he has no knowledge. He did not even have the presence of mind or integrity to apologize despite his trampling on her religious beliefs, knowingly or not.

Ironically, in a country that prided itself in 1963 on respecting and protecting the rights of one minority (atheists), is now readily ignoring the rights of another minority (Muslim women). In 2007, I conducted a national study of the hijab. Overwhelmingly, the women in the study said that they choose to wear the hijab, and do so based on their understanding of their religious beliefs. There were others who said they didn’t wear it, although they believed they should be and felt they did not have the internal strength to put it on yet.

In Islam, it is believed that Muslim women and men are supposed to be modest, and this modesty takes many forms. It can be internal with one’s thoughts, external in one’s speech, or in how one carries themselves and in how one dresses. While both men and women are enjoined to dress modestly, it is women who are most easily recognizable when doing so. In a post-1963 society that has become highly sexualized, to be modest sometimes means one stands out more in a crowd. As an American and patriot, I would expect my country to expect me to support her when she is right, and I would expect her to expect me to speak up when she is in error. This conduct of discriminating against people for their religious beliefs is wrong. It is equally, if not more so, wrong to discriminate against religious people based on their appearance. Muslim women seem to be the most visible, but also affected by this are some in the Sikh, Jewish and Christian communities.

This country was founded, in part, by acknowledging a Supreme Being in many aspects of its foundation. Just as we fight to protect the weakest and smallest groups in our country, I implore our government, courts and communities to protect the rights of the religious. It is the American way.

(Photo: Ken Stein)

Heather Laird is a Michigan-based writer for mainstream and Muslim publications and a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She is also one of the conveners for the 1st World Congress on Muslim Philanthropy in Istanbul, Turkey, and she has spoken at various community events in southeastern Michigan and at numerous universities in Michigan on topics concerning Muslims and Islam. A version of this article originally appeared at

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