Recently, the Governor of Mississippi, Phil Bryant, signed the Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act. On Governor Bryant’s website, the student religious liberties bill is described as one that “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school for expressing their religious viewpoints or engaging in religious activities.”
The expressed desire is to ensure that students can express their religious viewpoints. However, when we look at this bill more closely, it seems to be protecting the privileges associated with being part of the dominant Christian faith. As someone who does not subscribe to the dominant religion in Mississippi, Christianity, I found myself wondering whether the state was acting as an entity with privilege and whether my personal response (along with many others) was consistent with the behavioral patters the attached document ascribes to people who are—in the broadest sense—being oppressed. Because essentially, what this bill does is protect SOME students from being discriminated against in public school for expressing their religion.
Last week, I wrote about privilege and oppression. While we might feel privileged in certain areas of our life, we may feel oppressed in other areas of our life. This dynamic is often found when there is a dominant group with power greater than that of a minority group without as much power.
It’s difficult to make the case that in a Mississippi public school, where a significant majority of the students and faculty members are Christian, that a student that is Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, atheist, or any other minority faith (or no faith at all) will feel as though their expression of religion is being protected by this bill. If anything, the message is that to fit in with the other students, their religious expression ought to be diminished and more consistent with the dominant religion.
The tendency to pay most attention to the dominant culture is a phenomenon we see not only in public schools, but also in private institutions – including American synagogues. Ashkenazi, white, straight, able-bodied congregants are part of a dominant culture. They are dominant in numbers and in the power structures of many American synagogues. Is it a stretch to wonder whether people who don’t fit that very precise description are feeling oppressed in any way? In looking at the tendencies associated with people in oppressed positions, I’d like to suggest that there are similarities.