As part of ongoing efforts to encourage respect for students of all faiths and beliefs, the U.S. Department of Education today shared a series of actions that confront discrimination and promote inclusive school environments.
The steps include a new website on religious discrimination, an updated civil rights complaint form, an expanded survey of America’s public schools on religious-based bullying, technical assistance for schools, and recent outreach on confronting religious harassment in education.
“Students of all religions should feel safe, welcome and valued in our nation’s schools,” said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon. “We will continue to work with schools and communities to stop discrimination and harassment so that all students have an equal opportunity to participate in school no matter who they are, where they come from or which faith, if any, they subscribe to.”
“Today’s announcement underscores that we are concerned about the well-being of ALL students. On the prevention side, President Obama’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, started in 2011, is another important resource,” said the Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, director of the Department’s Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. “Our agency has had the privilege of coordinating the Challenge which provides college students from many religious traditions as well as nonbelievers to work together to tackle community problems. This higher education civic engagement allows students from religiously diverse backgrounds to build bridges of understanding across cultural and religious lines and helps prevent intolerance.”
Among the highlights of today’s actions:
- Religious Discrimination Website. The Department’s Office for Civil Rights launched a new page on its website with information about federal laws that protect students from discrimination involving their religion. The page links to OCR policy guidance, notable case resolutions, and resources in multiple languages and from other federal agencies.
- Updated Online Complaint Form. OCR updated its online complaint form to clarify that the office can investigate complaints regarding racial, ethnic or national origin discrimination involving religion. It reaffirms that students, parents, and persons of all faiths can file such complaints with OCR even though the laws OCR enforces do not expressly address religious discrimination in education. OCR has used enforcement as a key tool to protect students of many religious backgrounds from unlawful discrimination, including Jewish students subjected to anti-Semitic epithets and Muslim students targeted for wearing a hijab and called terrorists. Where schools have records of failing to address hostile environments, OCR seeks and secures commitments from them to improve their harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, and conduct school climate surveys.
Other recent efforts undertaken by the Department to address discrimination involving religion include:
- New Data From U.S. Schools. Later this year, every public school across the country, for the first time, will report to OCR through the Civil Rights Data Collection on the number of incidents of religious-based bullying or harassment in their schools in the 2015-16 school year. This new collection will give stakeholders, policymakers, and educators critical data that will allow them to further understand the problem of religious discrimination and to measure progress going forward.
- Government Collaboration. Since March, OCR has participated in a series of roundtables with federal agencies through the Justice Department’s Combating Religious Discrimination Today initiative, on issues of religious discrimination, including bullying of students from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds.
- Outreach. In June, OCR issued a fact sheet about combating discrimination against Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian students, and translated the fact sheet into 15 languages to ensure that limited English proficiency is not a barrier to understanding one’s rights under federal civil rights laws. Lhamon recently blogged about her office’s work to prevent discrimination involving religion at schools and universities.
- Technical Assistance. In response to “an increasing number of incidents of anti-Semitic bullying and harassment in public schools . . . [and] reports documenting that students who are or are perceived as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Arab, Middle Eastern, South Asian, or Southeast Asian are frequent targets of bullying and harassment,” the Department adopted new regulations for its Equity Assistance Centers (EACs) that will enable them, starting in October, to provide technical assistance, on request, to public school districts, students and parents, and community organizations about religious discrimination and harassment.
OCR enforces Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color, and national origin, including a person’s actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics or citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity. That includes membership in a religion that may be perceived to exhibit ethnic characteristics, as often experienced by Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh students.
Earlier this year, President Obama proclaimed Jan. 16 as “Religious Freedom Day, 2016” declaring that, “Since our country’s founding, religious freedom has been heralded as one of our most cherished ideals.”
In addition to the actions listed above, the Administration is taking other steps to combat religious discrimination.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is launching a new webpage today to ensure communities know about its work to combat hate violence and enforce laws such as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The Civil Rights Division is also publishing an update on its enforcement of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
Today, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) announced that it will implement changes to its collection of demographic data from individuals who file charges with the agency. These changes will allow EEOC to collect more precise data about the religion of the individual alleging discrimination. This will assist the agency, as well as the public, in recognizing and responding to trends in the data. And, to protect young workers, EEOC released a fact sheet, in English and in Spanish, about religious discrimination on their [email protected] website which presents information for teens and other young workers about employment discrimination.