experiencing a religious practice in school

Marie A. Failinger mfailing at PIPER.HAMLINE.EDU
Fri Feb 13 16:42:36 PST 1998

On Fri, 13 Feb 1998, Thomas C. Berg wrote:

> Several of them mentioned that recently their social
> studies class had done a unit learning about Islam (it
> actually coincided with Ramadan, I believe).  One
> enterprising student (sure to be a religious freedom lawyer
> someday) complained that his teacher had assigned them to
> fast for a day, to understand what Muslims do during
> Ramadan.  He believed that this was forcing a religious
> practice on him in school; he and other students, he said,
> weren't just being forced to learn about Islam, they were
> being forced to practice it.
> Let's set aside questions about whether an assignment (such
> as fasting or kneeling) is too physically demanding to be
> appropriate; let's assume that it's not.  What should the
> Religion Clause standards be?  For the permissibility of
> doing this at all -- or for opt-outs for objecting
> students?  Are there any reported decisions on this?  Any
> thoughts from members of the list?

The problem with the simulated fast/ashes/etc., is that the actual
experience the non-believing student is likely to have is not simply
lesser in degree--it has no relationship to the experience of the

The experience of surrender to God which Ramadan is, I believe, trying to
further is not going to be felt by a student forced by a human being to do
something against his will.  This is true, I think, even for those people
who attend religious rituals and go through the motions without
necessarily having an internal religious experience or believing the
tenets of the religion--it is still not the same as asking a person
outside that ritual process to engage in what appears to be a physical act
that is the same.  So I don't see what the point of this fasting would
be--even at the "hunger" level, I would suspect that a fasting Muslim is
going to experience hunger as very different than a fasting non-Muslim.

A more apt assignment would be:
    a)go listen to someone who IS Muslim describe what the Ramadan fast
feels like to a believer, or watch her engage in the practice--this would
be a similar assignment to a book and
therefore would be permissible/impermissible on the same grounds as courts
have found in the textbook challenge cases, it seems to me. I think this is
very enlightening to the unbelievers, if only to help them draw analogies
to their own religious experience or understand that these seemingly
nonsensical practices such as the ashes have meaning to others that they
don't to the unbeliever.
    b)if you are a believer in the idea that one should surrender oneself
to the divine, go and do something that makes you feel this sense of
surrender--if this assignment is tailored to REQUIRE one to actually
HAVE a religious experience or complete a religious ritual, it seems to me
that this would be unconstitutional, even if the experience one chose was
one more genuine to one's own religious commitments.

By contrast, if the purpose of the assignment (in, say, a social
studies class) was to have students experience what it is like to be a
poor person who is hungry, etc., the teacher might be MORE in the
ballpark--though I suspect the physical experience of a middle-class kid
who is deprived of
food for a day is different in kind than someone who is slowly starving to
death anyway, much as we would like to think they are the same.

Marie A. Failinger
Hamline University School of Law
mfailing at piper.hamline.edu

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