Being a Religious Minority (in Public Schools)

What’s it like to be a religious minority in a Christian-dominated culture? Jews on First has published a must-read in-depth exploration of what it’s like for Jewish students going to public schools in the South, consistently exposed to peer pressure and conversion attempts by their Christian classmates, behavior often (directly and indirectly) supported by faculty.

Hint: The "Fifth Quarter" is about Jesus.

Hint: The “Fifth Quarter” is about Jesus.

“It can be the little stuff, like my classmates wishing me to have a ‘blessed day’. I know that really means that Jesus blesses you,” says Jane. “I have a friend who introduces me as her ‘Jewish friend, Jane’. It’s always in your face. Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded that I’m a Jew.” [..] One parent relates how his son would eat breakfast in the school cafeteria when a group of athletes would come in and “perform” for the students. “They would basically lift weights for about 30 minutes,” then go to the microphone and “announce that Christ helped them become athletes. After five or 10 minutes of sermon, they would pray and leave,” but meanwhile the students eating breakfast were not allowed to leave the cafeteria and were obviously a captive audience with no option to “not hear.”

Because court rulings have largely forbade faculty and staff from directly proselytizing, local churches use various tricks like the aforementioned “performance” to introduce stealth missionary work into the student body. One Rabbi in Atlanta notes that Christian students are urged by their churches to work towards the conversion of non-Christian students.

“…according to Rabbi Greene, one of the largest evangelical churches in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, even provides literature to its young members about “how to approach your Jewish friends.” He calls the effort “love bombing.” Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim, which isn’t far from Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, agrees that ‘they are very aggressive in their proselytizing and will teach Christianity to anyone who will listen. One of my former Hebrew School students came to me recently and said he accepted Christ; he’s confused.’”

In public school systems that are religiously and culturally diverse, the issue of student conversions is almost non-existent, evangelical Christian students are simply one voice among several; but when your school is in a region dominated by mission-minded Christians, the tone and tenor of student interactions suddenly changes. Instead of one voice, Christianity becomes the only voice, the dominant voice, among the student body. Those who don’t fit into that template find themselves consistently battered by the expectation that they too will fall in line. Christian leaders in these areas are well aware of this power, which is why they fight for state constitutional amendments that open “the door for coercive prayer and proselytizing” and “religious freedom” laws that they know will benefit the majority at the expense of minorities.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Join us. Jooooooiiiiin ussssssss.

Public schools are supposed to be secular by design, they have to serve the needs of all students, not simply those who are in the majority. These initiatives by local churches and missionary groups are trying to “game” the system by turning the student body into a peer pressure engine against non-Christian students. These are not natural conversion experiences that arise after deep contemplation or introspection, this is the equivalent of religious bullying, turning all those who resist into social outsiders. The experience of these Jewish students and parents is shared by other religious minorities in deeply Christian areas of the country, including modern Pagans. Sadly, these students often have to turn to outside help, or even litigation, to make sure their own religious autonomy is respected, as the faculty and staff are often sympathetic to these conversion efforts.

Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders. It makes them the enemy, and they turn the message of Christ into a sort of bludgeon in which to control behavior they don’t like.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Mayah Crow

    This sort of behavior seriously frightens me. What’s worse, in some areas they even try to “convert” people who are simply of a different Christian denomination, particularly Catholics. My Catholic family was horrified when my cousin started college and some Evangelical Protestants tried to “save” her, telling her that she wasn’t even Christian (history saying contrarywise, of course). I wish they’d realize how much like the Borg they are behaving, and how that probably drives away a lot of people.

  • Miraselena

    Having lived a Jewish life in multiple parts of the country…Living in Atlanta now and working with Lady Liberty League on School equality in our region, I can’t even begin to respond in a concise way… This falls into the category of “don’t get me started.” Thanks for the read.

  • gorm_sionnach

    “Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and non-Christian religious leaders”
    The thing is, they don’t care whose toes they step on, so long as they get to “save” people. Cohersion for Christ, is still after all for Christ. The fact that the Rabbi mentions one of his students was receptive to their message simply means it is an effective recruitment strategy. So what if people’s civil liberties are crushed, or those who refuse to get with the “winning team” are ostracized, they’re doing the work of their god.
    Everything comes second to their “noble” purpose.

  • Dver

    The quote on that poster is just sad: “If a person does not accept Jesus Christ as Savior before the age of 14, the likelihood of ever doing so is slim.” Seems like they’re acknowledging right there that their religion is so weak that few adults (who are wiser, more educated and more experienced than teenagers) would ever voluntarily adopt it. The only way to get people to be Christians is to indoctrinate them before they are old enough to think for themselves? I mean, sure that’s what it seems like to *me* but it’s amazing that they admit it so openly and can’t see anything wrong with that.

    • CrystalK

      Being “childlike” is considered a virtue to these people. Seriously, they quote Matthew 18:3 ‘And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like
      little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ So, yeah it’s seriously nuts.

  • stephanie barnard

    “Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among
    non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do
    nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings among parents and
    non-Christian religious leaders.” …It’s a great thought. Unfortunately, it has been my experience that the majority of them don’t care if they create ill will because in their mind, they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “in their mind, they are right and the rest of the world is wrong.”
      In that regard, is anyone of religious belief any different? If you thought that your stance was wrong, you would change. Wouldn’t you?

      I know I would.

      • Nick Ritter

        I don’t think that necessarily follows, Léoht, if one’s stance doesn’t have anything to do with one’s religion being the only possible path to truth. I am sincere in my religious beliefs and practices, and I do believe that the religion I practice is the best one I could practice: but it is not my stance that my religion is for everyone.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          I never said that my religion is for everyone, but I do think that Christians are wrong when they claim that theirs is the one, true, God. I also think that people who believes the gods exist solely as aspects of the collective subconscious are wrong.

          There are lots of points of disagreement to be had.

          I just don’t feel a particular need to convince everyone that I am right.

      • Mia

        Mine isn’t. My “religion” focuses on my immediate surroundings and interactions within them, acted out through my hearth culture. It’s not concerned with other people outside of my family (in the ancestor-worship context), therefore the “inferior/superior” debate is moot.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          right/wrong does not equate to inferior/superior.

  • GOPagan

    On the one hand, the school itself should have no part in endorsing or assisting such efforts. The inability of the one kid to leave breakfast where the Jesus-izing was going on is a prime example.

    On the other hand, in a pluralistic society, people *do* have the right to share their own religious faith with others, even kids in school as long as it’s not disruptive. The mere fact that there are a lot of them “love bombing” a particular non-Christian is, alas, besides the point. They have the same right to free speech as we do, and they don’t lose that right just because they’re in a majority and choose to exercise it in a way that makes others feel uncomfortable.

    That said, I wait for the day when something like that happens to my own daughter, currently in middle school. I will be exercising my own freedom of expression with the parents of the kids in question…

    • Souris Optique

      “The mere fact that there are a lot of them “love bombing” a particular non-Christian is, alas, besides the point.”

      Stalking and harassment is generally not considered a “free speech” issue.
      Is it your opinion that groups of students should be allowed to continually and regularly harass one student for ANY reason? Would it still be freedom of speech if a large group were harassing them about their clothing choices, or is it only the fact that it’s RELIGIOUS harassment that makes it ok in your eyes?

      • GOPagan

        To take one of the examples in Jason’s original post, I wouldn’t say that saying “have a ‘blessed day’” counts as harassment or stalking. As members of minority faiths, we might not like the fact that the majority gets to apply peer pressure, but the way to counter that is to give our children tools to deal with it, rather than appealing to government fiat.

        Bear in mind that the same First Amendment protection that allows you and I to be Pagan/Heathen/etc. also does afford religious speech with somewhat greater protection than non-religious speech.

        Frankly, I value the protection afforded by the First Amendment too much to see it eroded in any way, even when doing so seems to help me in the short term. In the longer term, everyone is harmed when the government decides what parts of religious expression are and are not acceptable. If they can stop a Christian kid from telling someone about Jesus, they can stop a Heathen kid from telling someone else about Thor or a Wiccan kid telling someone about the Goddess. I decline to give the government that authority over my Constitutional rights.

        Every school already has rules against bullying and harassment. If the behavior falls within those guidelines, it should be dealt with appropriately. But the mere fact that Christians are sharing their faith with non-Christians does not automatically make it “harassment”, as you would seem to have it.

        • Mia

          ” I wouldn’t say that saying “have a ‘blessed day’” counts as harassment or stalking”

          Context matters. If the person is saying that to random people as a habit and not singling anyone out, then you would be right.

          If the person was pointedly saying that towards a particular person that is known to not be Christian (or their preferred branch of Christianity), essentially going out of their way to say such a thing, then that is harassment and needs to be dealt with as such. Especially if it is in conjunction with other actions designed to single out a particular person or group on the basis of a protected class.

          Granted, this is from a Wisconsin perspective, but if I recall correctly this specificity counts at the federal level too.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      People do NOT have a “right” to share their faith with kids in school. Children of that age have been a protected class since the Fifties; most of the progress since then have been on the order of “Yes, we really mean it.” Evidently each new generation needs to learn it the hard way all over again.

      • GOPagan

        Bear in mind this isn’t about teachers or other adults (which I already said was inappropriate in my comment). If you’re saying kids don’t have a right to share their faith with other kids in public schools, that’s simply not accurate. Kids are “protected” from authority figures like teachers, administrators, coaches, and adults. They are not “protected” (in the sense of the term you use) from other kids.

        Its just like the canard that prayer has been banned from public schools. What was banned was *school led* prayer. Kids are allowed to pray as long as it’s not disruptive, and do so all the time.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          Stuff like that athletic “performance” have not been orchestrated by the kids. It’s done with teacher coordination and almost certainly at the behest of a church in town. Verboten.
          As far as kids talking to each other, I recall a case in which a kid wouldn’t stop “witnessing” to classmates on school grounds during the school day. The school made him stop.
          In recent anti-gay-bullying policies an attempt was made to exempt “sincerely held religious beliefs,” so you couldn’t say “Fags are sick” but you could say “Fags go to Hell.” That attempt was turned back.
          Protected class.

          • GOPagan

            I’ve already said forcing kids to go through that “performance” thing was inappropriate, and your second example is clearly “disruptive”, which I’ve already pointed out is not allowed. So I’m not sure why you’re jousting with those particular straw-men, but your reply has nothing to do with my comment.

            As far as kids being “protected” from other kids (other than disruptive behavior, as noted above, multiple times), I refer you to Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, which says:

            “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

            The Supreme Court decision goes on to say:

            “They [the students] caused discussion outside of the classrooms, but no interference with work and no disorder. In the circumstances, our Constitution does not permit officials of the State to deny their form of expression.”

            So while you’re right that students are a protected class when it comes to authority figures at the school, you are dead wrong when it comes to them being “protected” (in that sense) from other kids. No matter how much you might wish it otherwise, the actual facts are against your position, I’m afraid.

          • Baruch Deamstalker

            Alas, a later SCOTUS decision undermined Tinker. Kids do not have the right to air disagreement with Drug War policy, and are once more shorn of constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door.

      • Rhoanna

        What exactly do you mean by “protected class”? The context I’ve mostly heard that term in is with regard to discrimination (namely, characteristics one can’t discriminate based on), which obviously isn’t what you mean.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          No, I mean they are regarded as too early in their formation to put up with the full blast of opinion that, eg, college students are.

  • Terence Patrick Ward

    If children don’t accept Jesus by 14, the chances of them doing so is slim . . . isn’t there a similar statistic about smoking cigarettes?

    • GOPagan

      I noticed that too. So I’ve only got a few more years to protect my daughter from the clutches of the Jesus folks, and then she’s home free.

    • Rob Henderson

      You beat me to it!

  • CrystalK

    It’s these tactics that are turning their main deity into the punchline of a joke for a good chunk of the non religiously rabid in the country. Also notice how violence and militarism perpetuates the culture of certain factions of Christian. The phrase “love bombing” is testament that even love and caring for their fellow humans must be doled out with a sword.

    • CrystalK

      That should have said “permeates” not “perpetuates”.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Both work equally well.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Does the term ‘lovebomb’ make anyone else think of the phrase ‘glamourbomb’?

  • Liam Boyle

    I dread the day this subject comes up with my son in public school.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Your final paragraph is most interesting. I wonder if there are stats on how effective this kind of conversion effort is.
    Good to see you back in the saddle, Jason!

  • Apuleius Platonicus

    “We are Christians. Lower your defences and surrender your souls. We will add your individual distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.”

  • Donald Michael Kraig

    “Christians, if they truly want to see earnest conversions among non-Christian populations, need to understand that these tactics do nothing but create ill will and adversarial feelings…”

    Unfortunately, their mind-set is such that no matter how many times you say that, no matter how many ways you explain it, they cannot understand it. It’s like the famous book “Flatland,” where the main character comes back from a 3D world and tries to describe it to friends and family in the 2D world. They think he’s crazy.

    Trying to tell those Christians with this mind-set that they’re alienating people is like trying to tell an exclusive carnivore that fruits and vegetables taste good. It makes no sense. How can sharing the “Good News” be alienating?

    There are none so blind as those who will not see.

    • Makarios Ofiesh

      I suppose that a lot depends on how one defines “earnest conversion.” There are a goodly number of Christian denominations that believe that one is “saved” simply be reciting (with intention) the “Sinner’s Prayer.” (You can find it in many of the Chick tracts–also, Google is your friend).
      As it says, on one website, ‘
      If you read the sinners prayer and truly believe the words
      you read, then Praise the Lord, as you have been saved and your name will
      appear in the “Lambs Book of Life.”’ I wonder if those people realize that this is very close to a protection spell, rather than what one might call a “conversion” in any meaningful sense of the word.
      Also, this.